Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Being Local, Thinking Global

About two years ago the Daughters of St. Paul throughout the world began a process of “redesigning” the presence of the congregation in the 55 nations and territories where the 2,600 of us are established. It was occasioned by concerns over dwindling human and financial resources in many locations, as well as by the unprecedented pace of media development. On the other hand, new opportunities (and challenges) have arisen, not the least of which is renewed interest of local Churches in our mission, plus a steady influx—and even an increase—in Pauline vocations in some places. We have now begun taking initial steps toward a revitalization of several aspects of our life and mission.

The first step for us in the Western Hemisphere, was a pan-American FSP conference in Brazil last year. It led us to launch a remarkable missionary initiative, that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit working through our desire for an organized, collaborative effort between North and South, in carrying out the Church’s call for a new evangelization.

The following article by Hosffman Ospino, PhD, is the first in a three-part series on this initiative. He outlines the Church’s vision of a unitary project for “the American continent,” first proposed by John Paul II. Next week I will explain the Pauline project in greater detail. Finally, the third week, Father Joseph A. Benson of New Orleans will reflect on what that project entails from a parish perspective. As the U.S. observes National Hispanic Heritage Month between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, I hope that such a series will lead to fruitful soul-searching, conversation, and commitment.

Dr. Ospino’s expertise has been indispensable in establishing a socio-ecclesial reference point for U.S. Paulines to strategize together with a team of our sisters from Latin America. Originally from Colombia, he teaches pastoral theology and religious education at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, where he is also the Director of Graduate Programs in Hispanic Ministry. He is the editor of Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future (Convivium Press, 2010) and is the author of Peter’s Catechism: Who Do You Say That I Am? Why Did You Doubt? Do You Love Me? (Liguori, 2011). Both books are also available in Spanish.

Globalization, a phenomenon that many invoke to explain, sometimes to justify, what happens in our world, is the perfect opportunity to think deeply about our identity as Christians and as Church in the world. This I have confirmed in my many travels and conversations as a theologian and educator throughout the United States and Latin America during the last decade. From the newly created parish in a city that tripled its population over the last twenty years to whole Conferences of Catholic bishops, ecclesial movements, and religious orders, Catholicism in the American continent—North, Central, South, and the Caribbean—is in a major process of discernment: what does it mean to be Catholic today? No need to digress here about the various definitions of globalization. Suffice it to say that we live in a historical moment in which we are uniquely aware of who we are at the local level because of what happens beyond our immediacy—and vice versa.

Soon after arriving in the United States as a theology student I became involved in various forms of ministry in parishes serving Hispanic Catholics. At first my Colombian identity permeated my thoughts, perspectives, and reflections. That’s who I was; there was where I lived. Soon I realized that I was part of a larger whole. I did not stop being Colombian; I simply learned that I was a Latino in the United States, because this is where I lived. Today I continue to be involved in some projects and conversations in Latin America, an even larger whole, but I do it as a Latino Catholic theologian living in the United States. Globalization demands that all Christians, rooted in the particularity of our own realities, think in global terms. We must become experts in maintaining the balance between the local and the global.

At the end of the twentieth century, which also marked the end of the second millennium of the Christian era, the Church embarked in a process of reflection about what it meant to be Catholic at the continental level. Pope John Paul II led important gatherings of bishops in all continents. The key insights from these meetings are gathered in documents entitled Ecclesia in… (Africa, America, Asia, Europa, Oceania). Ecclesia in America speaks closer to us in the United States. The document is amazingly rich and visionary. Two insights that I think are worth highlighting are that all the Americas are one continent and that cultural diversity in the continent has the potential to enrich our societies and the larger Church. Let’s say more about both insights.

In terms of unity the Pope, in Ecclesia in America, said that speaking of “America” in the singular expresses both an already existing unity, as well as a desire on the part of America’s peoples to forge a still closer bond. He points out that, because her mission is to promote the communion of peoples in the Lord, the Church also longs to do her part to foster this unity (cf. n. 5). While there is still much that is unique to the identity of each nation and culture in the continent, the bonds of unity seem to be stronger, particularly through our shared Christian faith and the realization that only in solidarity our societies become stronger. One could think of multiple realities that embody such unity such as democracy or the market economy or even popular culture. However, these often fall short.

More than a factor, it is a body of people—more exactly a body of Christian believers—who, thanks to their faith and practices, express such unity most clearly: Catholicism. The Church has been an icon of unity in many cultures and continues to be so today. Keep in mind that unity here does not mean uniformity or homogeneity. It rather means a shared consciousness about being one in Jesus Christ, a consciousness that we celebrate (liturgy), teach (catechesis), and live in the everyday (service). In America, the continent, being Catholic means that, regardless of our differences, faith makes us one. It is a bond that is fully expressed in the idea of communion. Communion alive in what we believe; communion alive in the way we care for one another. In America one cannot fully live the Catholic experience “here” without being mindful of what happens to Catholic brothers and sisters in the rest of the continent. Such is the consciousness that fuels the missionary efforts of the Church, justifies that countless women and men spend their lives bringing Christ to each other—from North to South; from South to North—and inspires the generosity of many to make sure that everyone’s most basic needs are truly met.

The second insight proposed in Ecclesia in America, is that thanks to the way the Church is organized in and among nations, cultural diversity in the continent has the potential to enrich our societies and the larger Church (cf. n. 32). What makes being Catholic a very exciting experience in America, the continent, is the richness of its peoples and cultures. One could spend a lifetime contemplating how the Gospel has become incarnate in the various communities in the continent through expressions of popular religiosity, rituals, prayers, practices of faith, stories, etc. In the United States one can still appreciate glimpses of that European Catholicism that traveled across the Atlantic two and three centuries ago. Mexican culture breathes mestizo Catholicism, fruit of the encounter between Spanish Christianity and indigenous traditions. In Ecuador one cannot but stand in awe before the beautiful churches built in colonial times, capturing the spirit of a whole era. In Brazil elements of Portuguese, African, indigenous, and mestizo cultures concocted to produce a uniquely vibrant way of being Catholic. Every one of these general experiences is important to understand what it means to be Church in America—the continent.

But we must also pay attention to the more particular experiences that each nation and culture has developed in response to its own particular reality. I think, for instance, of the great efforts to advance ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the North, or Central and South America’s amazing examples of theological reflection and commitment to being in solidarity with the poor in light of the Gospel, to mention only two. Many of these experiences, without a doubt, have been the result of how particular faith communities have read and appropriated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Globalization has made us more aware of these life-giving expressions of Catholic life, which allow us to affirm better who we are at the local level while appreciating others beyond our immediacy.

The United States is perhaps the closest example to us where the local and the global coincide to shape the experience of being Catholic. Catholicism came to this nation with immigrants mostly from Western Europe and is currently being transformed by immigrants from other parts of the world, mostly from Latin America. That vision of one continent shaped by many cultures described in Ecclesia in America is in many ways a reality in the Catholic experience in the United States. But this presents us with a triple challenge: first, to remain sufficiently open to let the diversity that constitutes our Church today shape how we live our Christian faith as Catholics in North America and Catholics in America, the continent; second, to know better our own histories and contributions; and third, to sincerely appreciate what other Catholics beyond our own context have contributed to the experience of being Catholic in the American continent.

I began this reflection asserting that globalization seems to be the perfect opportunity to think deeply about our identity as Christians and as Church in the world. Now that we have a better understanding of what it means to be Catholics in America, the continent, we are now in a better position to do this exercise of discernment. Many Catholic organizations and religious communities have begun a serious process of engaging this question. It is imperative that they be provided with the resources and the time to do this reflection carefully because, in a global world, the implications of their decisions will affect not only their mission at the local level, but also the mission of the Church in the continent—and beyond.

Dr. Ospino can be reached at

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