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Welcome, Empower, Send: Lessons from Successful Multiethnic Parishes

My interest of late has been the role of parishes in church reform. Two posts ago, I proposed that parish-renewal programs and active parish councils are vital for empowering lay Catholics to renew the Church. In my previous post, I discussed how Americans’ participation in their churches and other local organizations makes significant contributions to social fabrics both small and large, which suggests that the vitality of parishes is significant for the health of the civic community. Here I tie these points together, drawing upon insights from the experiences of multiethnic parishes.

An infographic collection from Commonweal’s April issue on “The American Parish Today” captures major demographic shifts that shape the present and future of U.S. Catholicism. The number of Hispanic/Latinx Catholics is steadily growing (now 40 percent of the total), a quarter of all parishes intentionally serve Hispanic/Latinx Catholics, and most Catholics (56 percent) now live in the South and the West. Theologian Brett Hoover reflects on the growth of “shared parishes,” those that serve two or more ethnic, racial or language groups. In some cities, more than 75 percent of Masses are offered in a language other than English, and “across the Midwest and South, where demographic transformations began in earnest in the 1990s, the percentage lay[s] somewhere between 15 and 45 percent.”

These demographic shifts create new challenges and opportunities for ministry, worship, education and social outreach. How do successful multiethnic parishes respond to them? The Commonweal issue features an interview with Fr. Hector Madrigal, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Amarillo, Texas. St. Joseph is highly diverse: it comprises the original white/Anglo members, culturally assimilated Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, Filipino immigrants and refugees from South Sudan, Bosnia, and El Salvador.

Asked why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised his parish in a 2014 study on best practices for shared parishes, Fr. Madrigal says, “The USCCB identifies nine steps to integration. There are three that I call giant steps. The first step is about welcoming, giving people a place to feel and call their home. The second, once they’ve been welcomed, is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions. This leads to the third giant step, the commitment to stewardship and communion.” The Bishops’ report found St. Joseph implementing every step.

All parishes can learn from shared parishes. These three giant steps are the essential steps for building vibrant parish communities of any ethnic composition, and they are the same steps by which a parish promotes the common good. Let’s look at each step and its implications for church reform.

Welcome. The Commonweal issue includes survey findings that Catholics are most attracted to a parish by its open, welcoming spirit and by “the sense of feeling you belong there.” In an era when 30 percent of active Catholics attend a parish other than the one closest to their home and no longer attend out of mere habit, welcoming is more important than ever. A popular parish-renewal program, Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation, emphasizes hospitality, following Jesus’ teaching, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). Fr. Mallon writes, “Someone once said that the Church is the only organization that exists mainly for the sake of those who do not belong.” While hospitality builds and maintains community among current members, it is also key to missionary discipleship. “Hospitality does not mean being friendly with our friends and all the people who look, think and talk like us, but reaching out to the stranger.”

Empower. The second step, says Fr. Hector Madrigal, “is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions.” I believe that this is the pivot point of the whole enterprise, and it’s the step where many Catholic parishes and the entire Church have a lot more work to do. That’s why you are reading this blog! People are more committed to their communities and more likely to go beyond the minimum asked of them when they have a sense of ownership. Among the best practices for promoting ownership is having a parish pastoral council with a meaningful deliberative voice, according to those who specialize in studying such councils (such as Charles Zech and Mark Fischer). Fr. Madrigal provides an excellent example of this empowerment strategy:

“[At St. Joseph] we’ve been good about incorporating and integrating our different ethnic groups, but what about the younger people? And so we had some listening sessions where we evaluated our hospitality, our hymns and our homilies. And there it surfaced very clearly that generational difference is a serious issue for us and we need to address it. … The most essential thing is that we’re not just going to talk about them. We’re going to talk with them. … We’ve come up with a new structure, and one of the requirements is that a third of the pastoral council must reflect this younger generation. We’re being as intentional about it as we were in including the South Sudanese in leadership, the Spanish-speaking, those who speak more English—now we’re saying we have to include the younger generation in the leadership of this parish.”

What one notices in this quote, and throughout the interview, are these processes at St. Joseph: listening to the members, formulating a mission statement based on the discernment of the whole parish, (re)evaluating all parish practices in light of that mission, intentionally including all constituencies in the leadership of the parish, and from this foundation, forming Catholics to become missionary disciples. Following the USCCB’s “best practices,” but moving ahead of what most bishops make possible, Fr. Madrigal and St. Joseph are in the vanguard of parish-level reform in the Church. They exemplify at the parish level the greater deliberative role for the laity that Gerry O’Hanlon calls for in his recent post in this blog.

Send. The word “Mass” comes from the liturgy’s closing words in Latin: “Ite, missa est,” meaning, “Go, she [the Church] has been sent.” Worship is completed in mission. Drawing upon the Aparecida Document of the 2007 conference of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, both Fr. Mallon and Fr. Madrigal emphasize missionary discipleship. The future Pope Francis was the leading force at Aparecida, and the bishops’ document was warmly affirmed by Pope Benedict. Thus, there should be power in this metaphor to draw together different visions within the Church today.

So, if you want your parish be a strong actor for social justice in the wider community, work to build community in your parish. If you want your parish to grow and the parishioners to show a greater missionary zeal, empower their voice and their leadership, and challenge them to serve the kingdom of God. Good ecclesiology is good social ministry, and vice versa. Or, in theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s oft-quoted dictum, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.”

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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