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Many Faces
in God's House

by Virgilio P. Elizondo, Jamie T. Phelps, Ph.D., and Peter C. Phan

The Church in America is one of many races and ethnic groups. Each of these traditions brings gifts to Catholic life and worship. Each brings the experiences of a people which, shared around the Lord's table, is the Body of Christ in America. How can our Church find new ways to share these gifts? How can our diverse people work together to promote the common good? Perhaps the first step is to learn more about each other.

In this Update we'll hear from three pioneers in inculturation, the practice of bringing the Church to life in the culture of a local people. Inculturation is one of the key themes of Vatican II and, more recently, regional Synods, including the 1998 Synod for America. The three groups highlighted here—Hispanics, African Americans and Asians—offer a sampling of the possibilities. They were chosen because each is "knocking on the doors" of the Church that has grown over the centuries in America.

Of course, a short article like this can't spotlight everyone, but, in a spirit of Christlike understanding and goodwill, everyone can learn from the experiences of these groups. The more we can respect each other's differences as gifts to the Church, and become more welcoming parishes, the more fully we will be truly catholic, universal people.


by Virgilio Elizondo

Several years ago, I remember Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami saying, "Hispanics are not a problem to be dealt with, but a gift to be appreciated." I agree with the archbishop. We have a lot to receive from the Catholicism of this country, but we equally have a lot to contribute. Like every other ethnic group in U.S. Catholicism, the Hispanic religious heritage of our ancestors is a great fountain of religious wisdom, beauty, devotion and inspiration.

I would like to offer a few suggestions of some of the more important contributions we Hispanics are making to Catholic life in this country: It is home-centered, festive, devotional, visual and avant-garde.

1. Home-centered. Hispanic Catholicism is a religion of the home—religion casera! Because of the great absence of priests throughout Latin America, the main source of religious enrichment and continuity had been the religion centered around the home altar which created a sacred space in every home. It was normally presided over by our abuelitas (grandmothers) who led us in prayer, gave the blessings and transmitted the religious wisdom of our people. The tradition of the home altar is a great contribution to a culture that has secularized home life or limited God to the Church. The home altar sanctifies the family by centering it around God through the altar.

This religion casera gives rise to one of the greatest contributions we Hispanic Catholics have to offer U.S. society today: making God easily accessible to everyone. As great and important as our priests and official liturgies are, you don't have to go through a priest or an official ritual of the Church to enter into communion with God. Hispanic Catholics have a marvelous appreciation for the presence of God in daily life and a deep awareness of how the sacred penetrates every dimension of life.

2. Festive. Hispanic Catholicism is more festive-based than obligation-based. It is a real celebration of the great feasts (fiestas) that gather us as a human and worshiping community. As we build the family, Hispanic Catholics build community as "pueblo de Dios." Through the common celebrations such as Posadas, Navidad, Semana Santa, Dia de la Virgen and other special feasts, we come together not simply as individuals who gather but as an intimately interconnected group of people. These feasts give us a profound sense of belonging to the communion of saints and a connectedness to the divine life.

3. Devotional. Popular devotions like novenas, votive candles, holy cards, the rosary, the Blessed Sacrament, home shrines, and other devotions to Jesus, Mary and the saints—all these celebrate and keep alive the best of the Catholic tradition of making God present and easily accessible to anyone and everyone. We have no doubt whatsoever about the very real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as a loving person who is there for us. We easily visit "El Santissimo," tell him our problems, pour our heart out to him, converse, listen and receive divine consolation and insight from him. We like to see him placed in a prominent and central place in our churches for he is the one who truly presides over our celebrations and accompanies us in our struggles. Hispanics draw from the sacraments of the Church, but they bring to the Church the sacramentality of life, that is, how God penetrates all of reality and is present in the ordinary aspects of life.

4. Visual. Hispanic Catholics help retrieve the very rich artistic, image tradition of the Church. The best of theologies will pass away and be easily forgotten, but a good image will continue throughout generations. Especially the images, paintings and artwork that Hispanic Catholics bring to the Church allow all people—from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest, from the illiterate to the most educated—to see and appreciate the great marvels of God's interventions in human history. We love the visual, we love our murals, we want to reintroduce what liturgists have driven out: the tradition of the visual representation of the great mysteries of God's love for us, adorning the walls and windows of our churches and thus making the whole Church experience a visual communication of God's love through the various mysteries of our faith which can be seen and appropriated by everyone.

5. Avant-garde. Hispanic Catholics have been in the vanguard of the renewal of Vatican II, introducing such breakthrough movements as the Cursillo, upon which many of our Church programs are based today; the basic Christian communities and community organizing movements which are redefining the Church; and today the positive role and importance of the popular religious practices of the people as an essential element of the life of the Church.

Virgilio P. Elizondo, a priest of the San Antonio Archdiocese, is director of programming for Catholic Television in San Antonio, and a professor at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC). He is widely published and has been involved in many video and television projects, many relating to his Mexican-American heritage.



by Jamie T. Phelps, O.P., Ph.D.

African-American or Black American Catholic culture was born when African traditional worldviews and values met those of Catholic Christianity in the New World. The traditional African worldview was carried in the minds and hearts of Africans as they were indentured or enslaved in the Catholic communities of North and South America.

In the African worldview all creation is sacred because of its origin and relationship to God. The community is central to the identity and development of the human person. The African worldview could be summed up: "To be human is to belong to the whole community." Individual identity is forged within the context of the extended family or community composed of God, creation, the ancestors and one's mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and all other members of the community. The focus of preserving and developing life as a God-given gift even in the midst of tremendous oppression rests upon these three central values of God, life and community.

African-American worldview and values
These three central values are reflected in sociological research on African Americans. Social scientists identify seven consistent values held by the African Americans: 1) the love of learning, education and skills development; 2) deep spiritual values as expressed through church membership and prayer; 3) a quest for self-governance through political involvement; 4) a commitment to service of others; 5) a commitment to cooperation with other people for economic, political and social goals; 6) race pride and 7) the development of black-owned enterprise.

These, then, are some of the positive values and beliefs which have sustained African-American families over the years: spiritual values, educational achievement, family ties, economic independence, strong kinship bonds, strong work orientation, adaptability of family roles, strong achievement orientation and strong religious orientation, to name a few. In short, family, God and community remained the foundational values for Africans in America.

Authentically Black and Truly Catholic
In the aftermath of the civil-rights movement and Vatican II, Black Catholics in America have consciously sought to embrace their identity as authentically Black and truly Catholic.

Along the way we shed some aspects of our pre-Vatican II European cultural assimilation. We adopted Vatican II's emphasis on cultural adaptation and the Church's subsequent emphasis on inculturation. In doing so, Black Catholics have developed distinct African-American Catholic worship styles and rituals which reflect the rhythms, songs and images of God and Jesus important to our distinct situation in life.

In our intentional commitment to be "authentically Black and truly Catholic" we have reclaimed the spirituals by which our slave ancestors evoked the presence and intervention of God and others as they struggled for freedom in the midst of oppression. We have employed traditional and contemporary gospel music since these reflect our biblical spirituality and our contemporary religious striving. We are developing rituals and symbols which symbolize our African past and our African-American Catholic present.

New celebrations and rituals are emerging. Black Catholics are increasingly celebrating those among our ancestors who embodied, preserved and transmitted the distinct Black Catholic religious virtues and values both throughout the African diaspora in general and within the U.S. Catholic community in particular.

The lives of Josephine Bakita, Pierre Toussaint, Henriette Delille and Elizabeth Lange are currently in the process of formal canonization. Thus they will join the ranks of Black Catholic saints from the Americas, most notably St. Martin De Porres. Finally some African-American Catholics have adapted the celebration of Kwanzaa (our annual celebration of African-American values) by developing Christian versions of the celebration to reinforce and strengthen our traditional religious and family values.

African-American Catholic gifts
Catholic Christianity insisted that slaves were human and possessed immortal souls. That, combined with Catholicism's commitment to human equality and freedom, made it possible for slaves to adopt Catholicism as a context in which they could nurture and sustain their traditional religious life and values and develop a distinct spirituality.

African-American Catholic spirituality is biblically rooted. It is Trinitarian (God-centered, Jesus-centered and Spirit-centered). It is socially responsible, mystical, joyful and creative. This spirituality is concretely manifested in Black Catholic efforts to combat the social sins of racism, sexism, classism and cultural imperialism.

As African and African-American Catholics join in communion with their Catholic brothers and sisters who are not Black—and their Black brothers and sisters who are not Catholic—we can enrich the Christian and religious world with our distinct gifts of spirituality. These have allowed us to embody the virtues of fortitude and perseverance in the midst of enormous and consistent systemic oppression, devaluation and marginalization in our Church and society.

We can share our deep sense of joy and peace as we give witness to God's compassionate care to us in the midst of our suffering. We can share our ability to invite others into community as we forgive and seek reconciliation with those who failed to see us as fully human brothers and sisters gifted with God's grace. We can invite others to join us in our struggle for social justice and our joyous celebration of the Eucharist enriched by our distinct music and song that celebrate God's love made manifest in and through the presence and actions of Jesus the Liberator and the Holy Spirit.

Jamie T. Phelps, Ph.D., an Adrian Dominican Sister, is currently a professor of theology and associate director for the master degree program of the Summer Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University, New Orleans, and a visiting professor of theology at Loyola University, Chicago. She writes widely on her African- American heritage.



by Peter C. Phan

Since World War II millions of Asians and Pacific Islanders have emigrated to the United States. These people trace their roots from various countries of Asia and the Pacific islands comprising Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. They include principally the Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Hmoungs, Laotians, Cambodians, Hawaiians, Samoans and Guamanians. Their presence has profound and extensive implications for every facet of life in both the American society and the American Catholic Church.

Within 50 years, 10% of the U.S. population will be Asian! Among Asian Americans, the largest number of Catholics is found among Filipinos, Vietnamese and Koreans. When we consider these multifaceted peoples, it is important to remember that there is no generic "Asian" but only very distinct Asian ethnic and national groups, composed of individuals. Each Asian country has its own mode of being Catholic that reflects its cultural and religious traditions. Yet there are some commonalities.

Instead of frenetic activism, Asians practice love of silence and contemplation; instead of unbridled consumerism, simplicity, frugal living and detachment; instead of physical and psychological violence, harmony and nonviolence; instead of ecological destruction, closeness to nature, respect for life and compassion for all beings; instead of racism and sexism, tolerance and peaceful coexistence; instead of antifamily ethos, filial piety toward parents, elders and ancestors; instead of anti-intellectualism and moral pragmatism, thirst for learning and philosophical inquiry; instead of rugged individualism, a powerful sense of solidarity.

Asian-American Catholics stand between a more conservative pre-Vatican II Catholicism and a more progressive Vatican II Catholicism. Which side they favor largely depends on the Church of their native countries or even of particular regions of these countries. In spite of regional and national differences, these traits seem to be common to American Asians' experiences of Catholicism.

1. Institutional. Asian-American Catholics tend to exaggerate the role of visible and canonical structures and the importance of the hierarchy. This outlook is strongly buttressed by the Confucian culture with its emphasis on deference for authority and tradition.

2. Passive tendencies. Despite the fact that the Asian-American Catholic laity, especially the younger ones, are highly educated and successful in various professions, they have as yet no effective voice in the day-to-day operation of parish life.

3. Lack of openness to other religions and cultures. Asian-American Catholics still look on the followers of other religions with suspicion, despite Vatican II's insistence on the necessity of interreligious dialogue. Furthermore, they have barely begun to reflect upon, much less enact, the task and ways of inculturating the faith into their own cultures.

4. Individualistic piety. Asian-American Catholics often are also reluctant to take upon themselves the challenges of social justice, even if most of them are vigorously opposed to Communism, and understandably so, given their experience of Communist oppression. In general, Asian-American Catholicism is still heavily shaped by individualistic pietism.

5. Vocation-oriented. One area in which Asian-American Catholics have already visibly transformed the American Church is the number of priestly and religious vocations they (in particular the Vietnamese) have produced. This large number of vocations could be attributed to the high respect in which priests and religious are held among Asians, but certainly it has roots in the devout faith of Asian-American Catholic families.

6. Devout. The cultivation of popular devotions is a distinguishing characteristic of many Asian-American communities.

7. Festive. Intimately connected with popular devotions, communal activities flourish, often in tandem with sacramental celebrations (especially Baptism, marriage and funerals), certain annual feasts (e.g., the New Year) and cultural customs (e.g., death anniversaries).

8. Formed by the cross. The faith of Asian Churches has been tested in the crucible of suffering and even persecution. The memory of martyrdom is still fresh in the minds of Asian-American Catholics, whether it is that of 26 Nagasaki martyrs canonized in 1862, or 103 Koreans canonized in 1984, or 118 Vietnamese (including foreign missionaries) canonized in 1988.

More recently, many Asian-American Catholics have suffered for their faith under the Communist regime (e.g., in China, Korea and Vietnam) and as a result have chosen exile in the United States and elsewhere. While this experience might have rigidified their conservative political views, it has no doubt enriched and fortified their faith.

9. Asian in spirit. Asia is the birthplace of almost all world religions (including Christianity!). In Southeast Asia, the three main religious traditions are Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist. Scratch the surface of every Southeast Asian Catholic and you will find a Confucian, a Taoist and a Buddhist or, more often than not, an indistinguishable mixture of the three. They are socialized into these values and norms primarily through thousands of proverbs, folk sayings, songs and, of course, family rituals and cultural festivals. This rich and varied religious heritage of Asian-American Catholics is a very significant contribution to the American Church.

10. Compassionate. Most if not all first-generation Asian immigrants in the United States have experienced poverty before they came here. This experience makes Asian-American Catholics sensitive to the sufferings and needs of their fellow nationals and generous in their financial support for the Church as well as for their relatives back home.

Peter C. Phan, a native of Vietnam and a presbyter of the Diocese of Dallas, is the Warren-Blanding Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture in the department of religion and religious education at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Next: World Religions (by Virginia Smith)


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