Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of Bread and Fishes and Red Wine!

     Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Father Joseph A. Benson serves as pastor at the multicultural Blessed Francis X. Seelos Church in New Orleans.* (Don’t miss the slide show at right.) For almost thirty years he has been a friend, confidant, and minister to many Daughters of St. Paul, not to mention a frequent online customer at the Pauline Books & Media Web store and a happy hostage (regardless of what he says!) at our PBM Center in Metairie.
     Fr. Benson’s guest blog article this week wraps up our initial series regarding the unitary project of the Daughters of St. Paul for the American continent. While our vision of this project involves redesigning the Pauline mission in the Western Hemisphere, that communications mission is carried out in relation to every person and every ministry in the Church, often where people experience Church—the parish community. It springs from within our own multicultural community and so, moves us to be evangelized first, welcoming the Word and Image of God in unexpected ways.

We are more and more coming to know who we are – the great Gospel discovery – if I might put it that way. That we are not alone is not just the stuff of extraterrestrial fantasies, but rather the reality of the community called society. Well into the global village now, we are already integrally engaged in the future of our world and its process of being subsumed into the world of the divine. A new heavens and a new earth are awaited with expectation and hope, but also with much groaning, toward the full revelation of the people of God. Grace building on this nature imparts to each person an energy that works unto the full scope of Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:13).

In the locality of such a lofty vision, many find themselves particularly concerned about our Hispanic – Latino sisters and brothers, who have come among us in search of a hope, of value, of a better future, of a dream to be realized. And each brings the very giftedness of themselves to be imprinted in minds and on hearts, in the soil and on buildings, in the song and the rhythmic dance of our diversity.

How do we me meet these hopeful, needy, and yet gifted family members? Yes, family members. We are indeed already a unity! All too often, however, we miss this truth because of our own myopia. Our administration as church-family – our sharing – of material gifts arises from our having been blessed materially as a family. We need to recognize and incorporate the particular blessings that come from our migrant members just as we need to do in our own households. In each cell of our body does the church need strengthening, and that comes about when all are incorporated. 

Such is the energy for ministry among the members of the Hispanic community. We are immersed in the Gospel that speaks to all aspects of our lives and destiny. We are embraced while yet embracing our very selves as God’s children, come from another area of the world in terms of our origins but joined as a family of pilgrims. With this vision I am reminded of an English song; some call it the “Glastonbury Carol,” (for audio, click “Wind in the Willows”)
“We have bread and fishes and a jug of red wine
To share on our journey with all of mankind….
“We travel the wide world
Over land and the sea
To tell all the people
How they can be free.”
In New Orleans we have been blessed with a very strongly knit group of committed people at the archdiocesan offices of both Catholic Charities and the Hispanic Apostolate. Because of the interconnections of ministry, we work very well together for the people in social, economic, legal, pastoral and spiritual areas. They have been able to help us track our way carefully but productively on this journey.

I consider myself blessed in pastoring this piece of the church at Blessed Francis X. Seelos in New Orleans. We are a dramatically diverse community even within our Hispanic branch, which reflects all of the Latino countries, as well as quite specific subgroups, such as the Garifunas and the Chocos. (The former descend from Africans who were bound for slavery, managed to escape and then joined themselves to the indigenous people of San Martin and other Caribbean Islands.  The latter descend from slaves in Columbia, who banded together and moved into a mountain region north of Cartagena, mixing with one of the tribes of that region.) Our celebrations and identifications require more than English-Spanish language tools!

Catechesis requires bilingual teachers, books, and an approach to engaging the parents, who can relate from their own idiomatic experience. Because of shared second languages of English or Spanish, adults themselves are being formed, precisely as they are being engaged to form their children. An interesting pedagogy! Administratively we take great pains to know dates, celebrations, and customs and, as best as possible, to respect all such events. By now our ministries function with these woven strands as part and parcel of each meeting, without much conscious stress.

Once needs and gifts are identified, we look at the process of inculturation, as opposed to a form of assimilation at the expense of one’s heritage, and we hit the usual walls of lack of appreciation and misunderstanding. Nonetheless, we find our encouragement in the prophetic Gospel model of all the nations making their way to the New Jerusalem – a model that speaks of all being acculturated and raised to another degree of glory (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).

Thus, in a radical way, is it necessary for the “welcoming” community to be embraced as well by those who come, since our sisters and brothers nationwide have increased in population, from over 12% in 2000 to almost 15% in 2007 and now over 16%, according to the 2010 census. Of this grouping some 73% identify themselves as Catholics and certainly reflect a universality of the church in terms of practice and devotion. There is a stark reality here: What is perceived by some as clannishness is, in reality, a challenge to the whole body politic. In a land foreign to them, these women and men embody a sense of dignity, respect, and belonging among themselves that is particularly profound and so, is open to embrace others when such opportunities are available to them. That embracing of the whole is beginning to transform our society and will only continue to do so all the more strongly and definitively with the passage of time.

Therein lies a very important key to understanding the challenges for the future of ministry among the Hispanic – Latino population. This is not about merely handing out stuff – nor just providing legal defense, nor taking sides on dignity issues regarding one group. This is about all of us becoming whole and each part working, “nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments” (Col 2:19), and reaching the fullness of Christ, as this time and juncture of history would call us do. It is actually about many of us finding ourselves once again for who we really are, with the prized memories of whence we came. Always a little scary, but what a discovery – always a little fearful and even with some anger, but what an awesome breaking through! And we begin again, looking not at what we have left behind, but rather keeping our eyes fixed on the prize (cf. Phil 3:14), pressing forward and together.

In an age of rapid development of media and their formative power in cultures, it becomes paramount constantly to update ourselves regarding the stages of the journey, to catch and share the rhythm of the movement created by means of the visual and the aural – so we can provide for sufficient reflection on the stages covered thus far, with a challenge and a song for the stages yet to be accomplished. And so:
“We travel the wide world,
Over land and the sea
To tell all the people
How they can be free.”
Fr. Benson can be reached at

* A PBS production, “The Church on Dauphine Street,” chronicles the rebuilding of the church and its facilities after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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