Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Redesigning America

This is the second article in a three-part “mini-series” on the American unitary project that the Daughters of St. Paul in the Western Hemisphere have launched for re-evangelizing this wedge of the globe. I wrote the article to explain the project in more detail. Next week: A parish insight into the continent’s new evangelization, by Fr. Joseph A. Benson.
Sr. Marta Yolanda and Sr. Hortencia

In July we were blessed to receive into our province of the U.S. and English-speaking Canada four sisters from Latin America, who will spend the next three years working with us to share the Word of God with people who are among those most at risk of losing it—first and second generation Hispanics. More about that in a minute. First allow me to introduce them to you:
Sr. Líria Grade (Brazil)
Sr. Marta Yolanda Melgarejo (Argentina)
Sr. Natividade “Nati” Pereira (Brazil)
Sr. Hortencia Raymundo (Mexico)

All four spent the summer in Boston, making their first foray into English and into Pauline life in North America. They began to familiarize themselves with the socio-ecclesial situation here, especially as it connects with multi-cultural ministry, and to begin working with us to draft a three-year pilot program for Hispanic evangelization in the U.S. and Canada. The two sisters from Brazil will remain in Boston to evangelize among Brazilian immigrants with Sr. Mary Emmanuel Alves, a Boston area native of Portuguese descent. Sr. Hortencia and Sr. Marta Yolanda have already flown to Miami with Sr. Elizabeth Borobia, who directed evangelization in Boston for the past several years. There they will continue their studies and, once the pilot program is approved for experimentation, they will begin to implement it primarily in Florida and Texas.

As you know from last week (scroll down to the blog post of Sept. 28), this is the first phase of a plan adopted by representatives of the continent’s FSP communities, who met in Brazil last year to “redesign America,” that is, to renew ourselves and reconfigure our communities as necessary to respond to the evangelization and media needs of the American continent—North and South. The second Brazil conference, which met in August, recognized that this entails centering ourselves on the Word, who, as Sr. Hortencia puts it, “becomes image, song, and word” in our communication with others; it also includes a re-commitment to wise administration and what the conference’s delegates called “co-responsible and organic management”—convent code for collaboration rooted in the way we Paulines live the spirit of poverty and the corporate aspect of our mission. One point of convergence in the discussions was an orientation toward increasing the availability of our media materials through a more uniform adoption of digital technology and focusing our services and activities on the integration of faith and culture.

If that isn’t ambitious, I don’t know what is. What’s encouraging is the testimony of the sisters at the two conferences, who highlighted instances in which they saw the Holy Spirit actually break through differences and get everyone onto the same page. What love won’t do.

Catholic Campus Ministry, University of
Texas at Brownsville/TSC, January 2007
 Closer to home, we’ve already had to answer questions about the relevance of this project from well-intentioned people, whose experience of Church goes no farther than their own parish, or at most, their own diocese. Dealing with economic hardship or family illness or even simply other interests, they wonder why or how they can concern themselves with what passionately concerns us. After all, only 12.7% of the U.S. population is either Latin American-born or second-generation Hispanic. If they’re so few in number, why are the Daughters of St. Paul so interested in them?

Simply put, first, John Paul II called us to be, and second, the reality in which we live  supports his vision.

Dr. Hosffman Ospino’s article in Pauline Faithways last week (scroll down this page)  awakened or recalled readers to the unitary plan for a new evangelization on the American “continent,” that Pope John Paul proposed in 1999 in his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America. Without reiterating all that Dr. Ospino wrote, it’s clear that such a paradigm shift pulses with possibility.

In 2007, the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops was held in  Aparecida, Brazil, to reframe the call to mission in terms of John Paul’s unitary vision. Afterward a handful of U.S. bishops gathered with other American representatives in Huntington, NY, simply “to reflect upon the event” (See the USCCB Web site). At that time, though, there was no major commitment to the continental vision. It seems that some in North America are afraid it will lead to a weakening of the Church’s European connections, even though the call for this approach came precisely from across the Atlantic. John Paul’s continental vision and mission outlined in Ecclesia in America has not yet been accepted or implemented in the U.S. and Canada the way it has been in Latin America. Even there, several Latin American nations are still constrained by rivalries that sometimes hinder evangelization.

An equally tangible fear is that, by connecting with nations south of our border, we will somehow lose the best of who we are, including our real or imagined role in this hemisphere. Some propose, however, that if done right, thinking, feeling, and acting in terms of unity will not signal amalgamation, but collaboration. Like others in “America,” we U.S. Catholics bring our God-given gifts to the project. With our network of parishes and other organizational structures, our financial and human resources, the several positive ways we implement the directives of Vatican II, the ambient in which we exist (despite the many serious challenges both from the culture and from our own membership), plus our access to the benefits shared by the rest of the population, U.S. Catholic leadership plays a critical role in this initiative. Our role, then becomes a question of prominence, not dominance, which is much more reflective of Christ’s universal call to discipleship that we find in the Gospel and of Paul’s “one bread, one body” approach to life in Christ.

Our sisters sensed this when they met together in Brazil. However, it was not mainly the Pope’s summons to us that prompted our discussions and resolutions, but the concrete socio-ecclesial reality in which we all live. We recognized the urgency of renewing faith among the people we serve, the challenges and opportunities within digital communication, and the deep social and spiritual hungers awakened by the continent’s large migrations of its people.
In the San Diego
PBM Center

Make sure you’re sitting when you read this next sentence. The fastest growing demographic vis-à-vis religion is that of the Latino atheist! Whereas four years ago, this segment comprised 12% of all Hispanics in the U.S., the number has already risen to nearly 15%. In addition, a 12% difference in Church affiliation between immigrants and their grandchildren lends some credence to reports, fluctuating though they be, of the droves of Hispanics leaving each year. Add disaffected Brazilians to that figure, and it’s no wonder Catholic pastors and other ministers are alarmed, as anyone who claims to love Christ would be. At times it can appear that the flock of 99 has strayed, leaving only one in the fold.

Many of the Church’s pastors and evangelizers are deeply concerned about Hispanics’ faith-life. Like us, Latinos also are believers at risk. Due to the dark side of our communications culture (every culture has one), with its pluralism, secularism and commercialism, many have already lost active affiliation. Case in point: When we carried out a mission based research in San Diego two years ago, almost 38% of the pastors we interviewed observed that the cost of living and, most recently, the economic instability of our world compel both spouses in a household to work at two jobs each—and not only in immigrant families. This prevents them from dedicating time to their own faith formation and deprives their children of their spiritual, educational, and moral support.

Nor is this peculiar to San Diego. Of course, as one pastor pointed out, the pursuit of “the American dream,” drives many to substitute wants for needs: “If you ask them [what the chief challenge to faith is], they will answer, ‘Time.’ If you ask me, it’s the spirit of the secular culture, which gives little priority to a relationship with God.”

Elena Platas, DRE,
St. Didacus, San Diego
 In a more positive vein, the sheer numbers of Latinos cause us all, including us FSPs, to sit up and take notice. An impressive 43% of the Catholic population in the U.S. is Hispanic. Nine short years from now, that figure will rise to 50%, and that’s not primarily from immigration. The Latino birth rate is considerably higher than that of the total population. In fact, while immigrants account for 40% of Hispanics here, 55% are second generation—and, BTW, they’re perfectly bi-lingual.

Could it be that the future of the Church in the U.S. is…gasp! their hands? It’s in the hands of us all—and that includes theirs.

This is the real challenge facing us all. As Justo Gonzalez observes in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, our Christian communities willingly support missionary outreach, as long as it stays “over there.” Even so, what threatens U.S. Catholicism is not immigration. Time and again in our history that has only served to enlarge and enrich us. The challenge is our willingness to live and work together…here…now. It calls us all, not just the immigrant, to adapt, to emerge from our comfort zone. Do we love the newcomer enough to chance that change?

Ten years ago I spent almost eight months in one of our small communities in Italy, struggling to learn the language, culture, history, and ecclesiastical and civic life. What a sfida for us all! One-sixth of the community was American (me), and it utterly changed, not only that one-sixth, but the other five-sixths, as well. Yet I find myself smiling as I type this. The letters we exchanged afterward and the prayers we offered for each other made it all worthwhile.

This is a phenomenon many of us have experienced and continue to live. I write this from Rome, where I’ve been helping with translation work during a course for 27 FSP missionaries who have left the U.S., Korea, Latin America, and the South Pacific to serve far from home, even in traditionally Catholic nations like Italy, Spain, and France. Their enthusiasm for their host communities and populations, plus their infectious joie de vivre attest to gifts given and received.

Along this line, Sr. Hortencia mentioned to me that even before she came to the U.S., she saw the benefits of this exchange of gifts. Keeping in mind the high value that Hispanics place on hospitality, she noticed that Mexican border parishes have in recent years begun adopting the U.S. practice of welcoming people to Sunday Mass. It’s a small gesture, and certainly a small effect of cultural cross-fertilization, but not to the person on the receiving end! As we know, it can make the difference in that one person’s decision to leave or stay forever.

The week after next, we’ll hear more from these Latin American sisters of ours and yours. Till then, adios!

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