Our Lady of the Assumption Church in the town of Vieux Fort on the island of St. Lucia doesn’t have electronic bells. The church bells have to be rung by hand at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., and for various celebrations. Dennis Melchoir was the parish bell-ringer for many years. I was often annoyed by the way he rang the Angelus bell so quickly that no one could possibly say the Angelus in sync with the bells. It just didn’t seem very prayerful to me.
One day, just before noon, I saw Dennis pull up to the church. I was ready for him. I went out to meet him and said, “Dennis, you know, when you ring the bell, it’s a prayer.” He said, “I know. It’s the Angelus.” And I said, “Well, you ring the bells very quickly; so quickly that I find it difficult to pray the Angelus.” Dennis looked at me; there was a brief pause, and he said, “Well Father, I guess I pray faster than you.” He smiled, got into his truck and drove away. And I stood there saying to myself, “I am so American.”
In a multicultural parish there will be various ways of doing the same activity. Isn’t that why our churches are filled with images of Mary and the saints: St. Anthony for the Italians, St. Hedwig for the Polish and St. Patrick for the Irish? And Our Lady of Knock, of Czestochowa, of Good Counsel, of Fatima? Isn’t that why we have so many different prayer groups, societies and associations?
Our Church is one. It’s true. But each of us lives in and is tied to a particular culture. In “Verbum Domini,” Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of God’s gift of culture and cultural diversity. “God does not reveal Himself in the abstract, but by using languages, imagery and expressions that are bound to different cultures. This relationship has proved fruitful, as the history of the Church abundantly testifies.
“Today it is entering a new phase due to the spread of the Gospel and its taking root within different cultures, as well as more recent developments in the culture of the West. It calls in the first place for recognition of the importance of culture as such for the life of every man and woman. The phenomenon of culture is, in its various aspects, an essential datum of human experience.”
A key to living happily in a multicultural parish is to expect people to think, speak and act differently. Live in the expectation of “difference” and let go of the presumption of “sameness.”
Create opportunities for sharing cultural differences that will lead to learning about why people do what they do. For example, you might organize a multicultural concert; a food fair or picnic with games from different countries; an arts and craft show featuring the works of a number of artists from different countries or a gathering for storytelling. Highlight the differences for the sake of learning and greater understanding.
The more freedom parishioners have to share their different expressions of living and living the faith, the more united the parish can be.
It begins with learning from one another. Learning to tolerate the differences among various cultural groups in a parish may eventually lead to acceptance of those same differences. And acceptance can lead to the realization that my way of being is not better than another’s, it’s just different. And over time, acceptance can lead to love.
By embracing, lifting up and celebrating the best of the varied cultures of a parish a new culture emerges, the culture of love, where all are welcome and everyone can find a home.