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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 309-312

Liturgy in a Multicultural Parish

Fr. Italo Dell’Oro, C.R.S.

Vocation Director, Somascan Fathers,

former Parish Priest, Assumption Parish

Houston (USA)

Assumption Catholic Church is located in the north side of the city of Houston, Texas. Immigrants from Italy, who came here in the early 20th Century through the port of Galveston and the sugar plantations in Louisiana, established the first parish in this area which in 1914; it was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These immigrants were mainly from the towns of Bisacquino and Corleone, both in Sicily. The people from Bisacquino used to celebrate their devotion to the Blessed Mother on August 15 each year. Then, during the late 1940s and early 1950s other people came to this area. Many of them were from the countryside north and west of Houston, of Polish and Czech origins respectively.

When I first arrived at Assumption Church in 1992 I had the immediate strong sensation of a community on the verge of a serious division or rather, one that had not yet come together. In the early 90s, the population in the parish was already changing from the cluster of 2nd and 3rd generation of European ancestry to the other growing group formed by recent immigrants from Latin America.

In the first group, in addition to those of Sicilian, Polish, and Czech descent, there were others of German, Irish and Mexican origins and the so-called Tex-Mex, people who had lived in this area of the United States of America for several generations and who spoke either English only or both Spanish and English. All of these people were the hosts, so to speak. Immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and other countries, who were Spanish speaking only, formed the second group, by now fast growing. They were the guests.

Neither group was affluent, since mainly “blue-collar” people made up even the first one. These were, on the other hand, people in their 60s and older whose children, although raised right there, had moved on in life, moved up the social ladder and moved out of this area.

It seemed to me that the language barrier between the two large groups was felt as being insurmountable. This, however, in my opinion included racial, national and social implications. On the one hand, the hosts felt that they were being deprived of something, such as the attention of the priests and other resources, and they were the ones supporting the finances of the parish, whereas the other party was not contributing adequately. One consequence was that they, reflecting the mood of the civic society, were practically expecting that everybody spoke English; they had strong feelings about this issue. On the other hand, the second group, the guests, were and still are in fact placing heavy pastoral demands – sacraments, catechesis, counseling, etc., yet some of them complained that parish activities were still leaning more toward the “older” parishioners. It was a no win situation.

My reaction was just about as instinctive as the initial perception and it was to foster both unity and solidarity: the former in opposition to the felt division, the latter to counteract the perceived racial and social barriers. I tried to articulate it in light of Acts 6:1-7. There we have the complaint of Greek speaking people about their widows who are neglected in the daily distribution of bread. Without any special presumption on my part, I read the episode and the apostles’ solution as a primacy given to both the catechetical-liturgical dimension of the community and to that of charity: neither can be neglected. Hence the call and mission of the seven (Greek) men to ensure the work of mutual attention, while the apostles reserved to themselves the responsibility to pray and preach the word. In other words, the language was a barrier, but the real issue was the neglect, that is to say, the lack of charity toward widows, so that the Hellenists were at social disadvantage. Three diocesan documents issued around that time were very helpful to move in such direction. They were the two pastoral letters, “Sunday: The Original Feast Day” and “Many Members – One Body,” and the “Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry”.

We framed our efforts in a threefold model which we called, “our Triptych”. It was the combination of the works of the heart (liturgy), the mind (religious education and Catholic Social Teaching) and the body (works of charity). Such model, which I derived from a booklet by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, helped us to focus more clearly on the celebration of the parish feast day of the Assumption, by making it the symbol of the entire pastoral activity. Hence the three moments of the Feast Day: the parish Bazaar, symbolizing the Body; the Convention, consisting of a presentation by a special speaker – a bishop, a seminary professor, etc., symbolizing the Mind; and the liturgy of the Vigil of the Assumption – procession and Eucharist, usually with one of Houston’s bishops presiding, was the Heart. Thus, all parish activities revolved around the threefold model and would lead each parishioner to feel and be a member of one community, certainly as diversified as the civic community, and yet, united and interconnected in solidarity by the same faith.

So, from a practical standpoint, we began focusing on the dignity of liturgies – not that they were to be necessarily perfect, but simple and according to the rubrics. A simple, yet well celebrated Eucharist must both reflect and inspire the life of a community, and not presume a perfection which is not there, or be offered with a casual approach that trivializes it. Hence, building upon the methodology, already in practice at both the diocesan and parish levels, of celebrating bilingual masses, we chose a few occasions that would symbolize our hoped for unity and at the same time would not be too much of a burden to either of the two main linguistic groups. These were Holy Thursday, Easter Vigil, the Vigil of Pentecost, the Vigil of the Assumption, and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The two Marian feasts held a special relevance because that of the Assumption had been actually “brought” to and celebrated in Houston by the founding Sicilian community almost a century ago, whereas the feast of Guadalupe is, as it is known, the greatest feast for all of the Latin Americans. They were celebrated liturgically, with elements of the traditions of each group, such as the Rosary prayed in Sicilian and the “Matachines” dances during the processions, and also socially, at which time we learned and shared some other cultural distinctiveness of the groups, such as foods, dances, etc. This helped us to introduce the idea of each being a gift to the other, rather than one taking something away from the other. Thus, the coming together in unity was also the symbol of the sharing of gifts that, perhaps unique to one party, were not exclusive to it.

Next, we strived to become aware of the common pattern of immigration faced by all groups, albeit at different historical junctures. We expressed it especially during the liturgy of the vigil of Pentecost through the Prayers of the Faithful which were prayed in Italian, Polish, German, French, Czech, English and Spanish, by native speakers of each respective language. This was a particularly moving moment of the entire Eucharistic celebration, a beautiful and uplifting experience of the universal Church.

Out of such liturgical experiences, we emphasized the need to recognize the different social needs of the several groups and worked toward making the parish community one that is open to transforming the world. Hence, the Convention and the feast of St. Jerome Emiliani became the occasions to learn more about the Social Teaching of the Church; we then engaged more deeply in a network of Churches, Catholic and not, jointly concerned with improving the living and working conditions of the immigrants and other people throughout the city. Through this ministry, leaders have emerged even from the immigrant population itself. They, in turn, are now working with their fellow immigrants, both in this same area of activities and in other ministries.

Many wonderful lay people, devoted to God and dedicated to His Church and who are willing to really sacrifice their time, talents and even personal consolations for the greater goods of unity and charity, were the real makers of all of this. In particular, the Pastoral Council, which was formed according to the Diocesan Guidelines as a “representative body” rather than a “body of representatives,” and was itself a sample of the parish population, was instrumental in bringing about such mutual welcoming and in defining the pastoral direction of the community. I am particularly grateful to all of these people and uplifted by their love of God and neighbor.

Finally, we always benefited from the pastoral leadership and the encouraging support of Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, to whom I personally am greatly indebted and deeply grateful.

At this time, I am involved in vocational work on behalf of the Somascan Fathers and I have the opportunity to interact with groups of young adults. The largest group in the Diocese is the one composed by Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants, as are others from the African and Asian continents, in addition to the African-Americans, and those of European origin. The Diocese is currently doing some groundwork to prepare a pastoral plan for young adults and I am gladly involved in it.

From my previous experience, I have come to believe that language is a relatively small barrier, a technical one, so to speak. But it may signal more profound divisions: those of racial suspicions and social differences. With the young adults, we have the beautiful opportunity to imagine a different world and then to build it in a spirit of unity founded on our Lord Jesus Christ. He calls us to recognize him in the Sacraments of the Church, but also in the hungry and thirsty ones, in those who are ill and in prison, and in those who are strangers in a foreign land. Liturgy and organized works of charity and justice can and will build different people for a different society and a different world, in which people are connected in solidarity and have no need to leave their home in order to live. I desire that those with whom I work in my new ministry share in the same hope.