Thursday, May 19, 2011

Loss of Catholicism, Loss of Immigrant Culture

I begin this piece by asking a question: Am I wrong, cynical, or naive?

You can feel free to answer if you like after you've read what I'm about to say.

This morning, I was reflecting with two Capuchin Sisters, who were visiting our parish from PA, about how sad it was that the very ethnic immigrant parishes in the Scranton area were closing and combining.

As of course they should, both sisters took the positive perspective that it was a time of new birth for the Church in that area.

But, I continued and said how I mourned the loss of the cultural identities even with the "new birth".

Upon hearing my brief lament, one sister commented, "They were too caught up in their culture, and not in their Catholicism."

I had to stop -- I didn't want to disagree, but I thought if it weren't for their culture, their Catholicism surely would have waned -- it was the fabric that held them together, gave them a sense of home and the courage to build the beautiful Churches that are now being "decommissioned", so to speak, by decree of the local bishop. These ethnic communities thrived and felt "at home" in America as more and more immigrants arrived and formed (really built from the ground up) their Catholic Churches, towns and industry.

It was not a matter of clinging to an ethnic identity that dragged Catholicism to its knees, but rather, a secularized and relativistic culture intruded upon it with its "throw out morals & religion" ideology. Certainly, it was important for immigrants to embrace their new home, integrate into American life, but even to this day in my own home, the Sicilian customs and traditions are nurtured not lost. That tie to who we are and where we came from is why we are Catholic today. It was important and lived -- even in a time when the culture could easily have ripped it out from under us.

There was of course that transitional time after Vatican II where a generation or so had nothing but their cultural roots to cling as a means of staying Catholic. The anti-establishment, anti-institutional thinking of the mid-1960's to the present day have disrupted the deep and abiding hope that we are all called to in religious practice. But, how grateful I am to my parents, even in the midst of the turmoil and change that ensued in the "implementation" of Vatican II, for sticking to their cultural roots, for raising us Catholic because that was what "Sicilians" did and how they lived. Thank God that the culture that I was raised in, although I had never been to Sicily in my youth, or known my Sicilian relatives, permeated the way I believed -- because we lived the culture of the Church in Sicily.

It is my hope that perhaps I didn't understand the good sister correctly.

Unfortunately, I can't help but feel sorrowful at the loss of the ethnic Faith communities -- Mother Church is designed to nourish those communities, Mother Mary appeared to cultures in their native identities. I don't think it was ever the desire of any of those heroic immigrants for their children to lose their cultural roots or their Catholicism. And, I don't see the closing of those Churches as a result of them embracing too strongly their immigrant culture -- not at all -- rather, they abandoned it to the culture of death (also not what American culture was intended to be).

 It is essential that we recognize and honor the tireless efforts of immigrant cultures to build the Church here in America, to give Jesus a home in a Tabernacle and building that reminded them of their homeland. Therein lies a very holy and reverent example to us all that worshiping God meant building community and a facility so beautiful that it brought Him Glory and brought people together. Just reflect on the sacrifice of love and effort  it took to make the privilege of honoring God in the new homeland possible. It is a sorrow to see so much culture and tradition fade away, and with it hope in the Eucharist. It is my prayer that in this new birth of the Church in Scranton,of which the sister speaks, much of this immigrant culture can be recaptured and embraced. May God continue to build up His Holy Church and revitalize these communities of Faith.

Polish Community in PA honoring the Black Madonna of Czestechowa, Poland


Karen Herr said...

Kathy, when these ethnic churches were founded in small towns in Pennsylvania, the towns were robust with immigrants. The ethnic churches were a way for them to have a Church community. The small towns have shrunk over the past century as the jobs are in the cities and even out-of-state. And so, the ethnic Church communities have shrunk. The pool of available priests has also shrunk. In many cases, it no longer makes sense for the diocese to have two Churches in one town (one ethnic, and one not), so they are closing Churches.

I come from a small town in Pennsylvania, with one ethnic Church and one not. It's a demographic/financial decision. I don't think the people in the area necessarily abandoned their ethnicity or their Catholicism. They just abandoned the town in search of work elsewhere.

Scott Bradford said...

That's a tough one. Great topic to think about.

Part of what helped bring me to the Church was its Catholicity -- that, across cultures and histories, we are all one in our faith and practice. Perhaps it's my fervent 'melting pot' Americanism coming through, combined with the fact that my bloodlines have been here for generations now...but I think of myself as Catholic first, American second, and ethnic (Polish/English...and Chinese by marriage ;-)) a distant third.

The UMC denomination I came from talked a lot about unity through diversity, but most Methodists practice their faith in racially and ethnically homogeneous communities. In Bedford, VA, for example, there was the 'black' Court St. UMC and the 'white' Main St. UMC. They were less than a city block apart (!!), but completely separate, hardly knowing the other existed, with worship services that were completely different from one another. I didn't see that as being a good thing, not for either community, not for the denomination, and not for the overall Christian faith. Even though both churches had some wonderful history behind them, and unique and valuable cultures, they would have been stronger in the faith together, learning from each others' strengths, even if they had to sacrifice some of their uniqueness to get there.

We see the same thing around here with First Korean UMC being less than a mile from Floris UMC. I completely understand that the Korean immigrant community needs a place they are comfortable with as their spiritual home, but I always felt (even as a Methodist) that the best way to do that was by welcoming those Korean immigrants -- and their faith traditions -- to join their UMC brethren in the existing church. Setting up in a separate place always seemed like it was undermining Christian unity. I remember thinking, "Shouldn't we Methodists all be comfortable worshipping with other Methodists, no matter where we're from?"

Like most things, I think there needs to be a balance...maintaining ethnic identity can be very positive, but it can also lead to compartmentalizing the faithful into separate communities, which I think is counterproductive in a multi-ethnic society like that here in the U.s.

Kathy said...


Thank you for your comments; of course, the populations have changed because of economics.

Perhaps "abandoning" was too strong a word.

The suggestion was that the closing of the Churches was a result of clinging to ethnic roots.

I agree with you that society has forced ethnic communities to disperse. I think that is more likely a reason for the closing of Churches than clinging to ethnicity. And, the industrial/technological age made staying in one's home town less viable. This same development in society brought forth smaller families, diminished practice of religion and a need for families to disperse for jobs/better life and lose those deep cultural roots of their Catholicism. I was making the point that it is more a progression away from culture rather than a clinging to culture that has Churches closing.

Kathy said...


Interesting points about universality and unity in integrating immigrants in the Church culture of their local communities. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides some guidance on the value of cultural integrity while understanding that the Church is indeed universal and unitive.

See Below from the CCC:

Liturgy and culture

1204 The celebration of the liturgy, therefore, should correspond to the genius and culture of the different peoples.70 In order that the mystery of Christ be "made known to all the nations . . . to bring about the obedience of faith,"71 it must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in all cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled:72 It is with and through their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God's children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one Spirit.

1205 "In the liturgy, above all that of the sacraments, there is an immutable part, a part that is divinely instituted and of which the Church is the guardian, and parts that can be changed, which the Church has the power and on occasion also the duty to adapt to the cultures of recently evangelized peoples."73

1206 "Liturgical diversity can be a source of enrichment, but it can also provoke tensions, mutual misunderstandings, and even schisms. In this matter it is clear that diversity must not damage unity. It must express only fidelity to the common faith, to the sacramental signs that the Church has received from Christ, and to hierarchical communion. Cultural adaptation also requires a conversion of heart and even, where necessary, a breaking with ancestral customs incompatible with the Catholic faith."74

Davin Winger said...

Kathy, I appreciate your thoughtful post as well as the comments.

The clash of cultures is a hard thing. Extremely hard for some. Here in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, I witness the mingling of the Mexican and American cultures. Of course the American is a melting pot made up primarily of the German culture.

I see a culture that was here first (Mexican), but perceived by the other culture (American) as the outsider. One culture is affluent (American), the other poor (Mexican). One culture is educated the other is lacking in education.

Language separates the two, but they both offer so much to one another. Faith is expressed in each culture in a beautiful way, but faith is not dependent on the culture.

Kathy said...

Howdy, Davin! I understand your point. I don't think that there need necessarily be an assimilation into Church culture (Faith) -- that is what the Church does so beautifully, be universal. The Mass is the same here as it is in Mexico, as it is in France, as it is in Vietnam. So, does one have to completely assimilate or can they hold on to what is good about their culture and develop communities, both secular and Faith-based that express that culture; communities that will help them worship. I just don't understand how holding on to a native culture has a negative effect on one's Faith. Especially in the early immigrant enclaves, it was that commonality of Faith and culture that built towns and Churches. It think you can see where I'm going it with this. It's not about becoming "American" it was the suggestion that clinging to something comforting and familiar was what cost the Church its vitality in those communities. I just had a hard time tracking with that.