NEW YORK (CNS) — Delicate negotiation and open communication are keys to bridging divides among Catholics at parishes shared by distinct cultural groups that retain their own ministries and worship styles.

Brett C. Hoover, author of a new book on the subject, said more than one-third of parishes in the U.S. serve ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse communities.

Shared parishes are challenged by cultural and power differences, but united by faith, expressions of biblical hospitality and efforts to overcome sticking points. “It’s not about the Trinity or transubstantiation; it’s about the parking or the parish directory,” Hoover said.


Hoover is assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of “The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos and the Future of U.S. Catholicism.” He spoke Feb. 19 at a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Migration Studies in New York.

Shared parishes are those in which two or more distinct cultural communities maintain separate Masses and ministries while sharing the same facilities and usually the same leadership, Hoover said.

As the U.S. church grows more diverse, largely through immigration, the percentage of parishes that offer Masses in more than one language also is growing. Hoover said 90 percent of parishes Hispanics attend “might be” shared now, up from 75 percent in 1999.

The phenomenon includes other cultural groups in parishes transformed by movement away from urban centers and population shifts associated with economic changes, as well as immigration, Hoover said.

Shared parishes are not part of a larger plan within the church, Hoover said. “It’s what happened to accommodate immigration with limited resources.”

Shared parishes institutionalize the separation of distinct groups, but also offer safe spaces for them to gather, Hoover said. Both newcomers and established parishioners experience grief from the changes that bring them together.

They may also be anxious and uncertain because they “don’t know how to read one another’s reaction,” he said. As a result, they avoid one another and formalize the avoidance by negotiating room use and parking lot timing.

He said there is “emotional fraughtness” and anger related to grief. Avoidance also happens when information does not flow between and among the groups, Hoover said. In some cases, each of the groups foresees displacement and “they see themselves as not possessing as much influence and power in the culture as they’d like. This leads to defensive positions,” he said.


“God speaks to us in strangers and if we don’t welcome them, we don’t get the message,” Hoover said. Communication is important and some “people from the dominant culture get converted to activism when they learn of other’s stories.”

Scalabrini Father Walter Tonelotto, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in New York, said pastors and lay leaders must work together to ensure shared parishes are vibrant.

His parish in the Greenwich Village neighborhood encompasses five groups: an aging Italian community, a newer group of young expatriate Italian professionals, longtime Filipino worshippers, Brazilians who come from throughout the metropolitan region, and Hispanics who work in local restaurants but live elsewhere.

The groups have significantly different needs and it is an ongoing challenge to work together, Father Tonelotto said. The first steps are to welcome everyone with a smile and offer liturgy in their language.

“But parishes today cannot be limited to liturgical activities,” he said. They have to use new media, organize activities and invite people to social and cultural events.

Our Lady of Pompeii used its Web page and other social media to promote an exhibit of Giotto paintings at the parish. It promotes rosary events in parishioners’ homes through the same media and organizes a multicultural food feast, Father Tonelotto said.

“If a parish does not go out and present different aspects, it becomes insignificant. If every parish had a Facebook account, we could reach millions of people each day,” Father Tonelotto said.

“My main work is liturgical. We have to empower laypeople, meet together at the parish council, … give enough space to each group and unite without killing initiative,” he said.

Maria del Mar Munoz-Visoso, executive director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said integration of parallel communities within a parish entails a process of welcoming, belonging and ownership. The process is impeded by stereotypes, discrimination and racism, she said.

“Parallel communities can become eternal rather than intersecting. It’s important to strengthen them, because people integrate better from a position of strength, and then build bridges. Some parts will never intersect, but the process brings the community together,” Munoz-Visoso said.

“Attention to cultural diversity is more than a practical matter. It’s a need to grow the knowledge, attitude and skills to carry to carry out the mission of the church,” she said.

Shared parishes require cultural humility, Hoover said, which includes understanding “life is a long project of learning and we have to always learn from one another.”

Flexibility, humility and curiosity are important qualities for potential pastors of shared parishes, Hoover said. Ideally, the pastor would be passionate about the faith, interested in learning about another culture, and flexible “about seeing my way is not someone else’s way.”

“In our country, we tend to identify Catholicism with American Catholicism, even though there are culturally different ways of approaching it,” including popular expressions of religion, he said.

“When human beings are faced with cultural differences, we make moral judgments. What you think might be a moral problem, might be a cultural difference,” Hoover said.

The Center for Migration Studies is an educational institute devoted to the study of international migration, to the promotion of understanding between immigrants and receiving communities, and to public policies that safeguard the dignity and rights of migrants, refugees and newcomers.