By Father Bruce Lewandowski, C.Ss.R.
Vicar for Cultural Ministries

The parish is the center of Catholic life and worship. Sunday and daily Mass, baptisms, weddings, funerals, sacraments, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Bible study and prayer groups, social activities, CYO and so many other important events and experiences are the staples of contemporary parish life.

So much is happening in our parishes that sometimes it can seem there isn’t enough space, not enough time, not enough days in the week.

The parish calendar, center and church can feel even more crowded these days when the parish is home to two or more communities of people of distinct cultures. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia there are a number of parishes that are home to two, three and even four distinct cultural communities. {{more}}

So what happens when the feast of the Patroness of Puerto Rico, Our Lady of spanine Providence, coincides with the parish’s annual Thanksgiving meal for people in need? Or when Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, falls on the same weekend as the parish’s annual Christmas concert? Or when Tet, the Asian New Year, happens to be the same week as the annual Valentine’s Day dance?

What happens sometimes in the frustration, tension and conflict of moments like these, when cultures collide, is that parishioners begin to say what they really think and feel. Some parishioners have a desire for unity. They might ask, “Can’t we all be one?” Other parishioners may have a desire for separateness, expressed by the pain-filled words, “Can’t they get their own church?”

Should we be completely one or completely separate? Neither extreme holds the answer.

I wonder sometimes if we have the idea that oneness in Christ is equal to oneness in culture. Being one in faith does not mean necessarily that we will be one in language, customs and traditions. Our faith is what makes us one, and our expressions of faith are so rich and beautiful. Sometimes distinct cultural communities live separately under one roof. A certain sense of harmony is achieved as long as rents are paid and calendars are coordinated and “they’re out of the parking lot before I get to church.” But is this the unity or harmony that the Gospel calls us to live?

What’s the answer? There is no simple answer. But one goal is to find a comfortable place between the extremes of being completely separate and being completely one. How can a parish work toward this? A few suggestions:

* Create spaces of sharing and dialogue among parishioners of distinct cultures. A great place for this is the parish pastoral council. Are the various cultural communities represented on the council or other committees?

* Also, plan a few common liturgical celebrations throughout the year where each community is able to participate and share in preparing, planning and celebrating, each contributing something from its own unique customs and language. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Sacred Triduum and Pentecost all offer opportunities for cross-cultural enrichment.

* Start young. Many youth today have little or no difficulty in multicultural settings. Plan youth activities and experiences that help to build friendships across cultures.

* Practice helps. Unity in spanersity needs to be practiced and is often the fruit of trial and error. Keep trying. Be patient.

* Finally, be kind. Kindness and gentleness go a long way in easing the frustrations, tensions and conflicts that will arise.

The hope is that somewhere along the road the question changes into a greater and even more important question, “Do we love one another in Jesus Christ, completely?”