Are Our Parishes catholic?
Happy Birthday to all of us. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Catholic Church and so that means we can all indulge in a piece of cake — and it has got to a pretty large cake to accommodate 1985 candles!
But why is this the date that the Church begins? Not the date of Christ’s birth, nor the start of his public ministry, nor the date of his death or Resurrection?
I think it’s because this is the date when the Church becomes Catholic — which, of course, means “universal”.
When St Peter and the other Apostles had the courage to come out of their Upper Room and address the crowd, they were bringing the Gospel not just to the neighbours of their area of Jerusalem but, in effect, to the whole known world.
That is why we read out that long list of places over which lectors will be struggling this weekend: Medes, Parthians and Elamites, people from Phrygia and Pamphilia. The confident ones will show that they know the correct pronunciation of “Cretans”; the nervous ones will breathe a sigh of relief when they get to “Rome”.
The history of the Church has been this history of universalisation. From a small group of Galileans to a wider group of Jews from Jerusalem and beyond, across the Eastern Mediterranean as we read in Acts, then to the whole Roman Empire, and eventually, as missionaries accompanied Spanish and Portuguese explorers, across the whole world.
World’s First Global Organisation
With some confidence, we can proclaim the Catholic Church as the world’s first global organisation, and the Cross as the world’s most recognised logo (long before the golden arches of McDonald’s!).
Here in South Africa we are beneficiaries of that process of universalisation.
There are critical questions to be asked about this history of expansion, especially with regard to the last few centuries and the links between European missionaries and colonisers.
We are more aware than ever of the mistakes made in the encounter between Europeans and the rest of the world because of cultural arrogance, economic greed or political ambition. And we should be reminded of this every time we see the dark-skinned, dark-haired Semitic Christ portrayed as a Northern European with blue eyes and pale skin.
That does not mean that we cannot also be proud of being part of a truly universal religious movement. But it seems to me that often Catholics are not entirely universal in their attitudes and approaches.
This came home to me when I was talking recently with someone involved in refugee work for the Lutheran Church. She made the point that worldwide Christian organisations, like her own and the Catholics and the Anglicans, have a big advantage in that they have a built-in predisposition to welcome people.
And she is right — up to a point. Many of our parishes have a wonderful mix of people from around the world because they have arrived in the town as Catholics and so seek out the local Catholic church. So as well as South African surnames on the roll, we will see Irish, Italian and Portuguese surnames, and these days Mozambican, Congolese and Nigerian names too.
After all, this article is being written by an Indian Catholic from Britain with a French surname to be submitted to an editor with a German name!
Clear Marks of Inclusion
What does it mean to be a truly welcoming Church? Initially those who come from somewhere else are “strangers” and we try to welcome them as guests. But, when do they stop being guests and become the hosts?
Many years ago I worked in an inner-city Birmingham parish with a monsignor, an old-style Irish priest. He would go to great lengths to welcome the Vietnamese who were in the community. But he never noticed that, 40 years after these “boat people” first arrived, the Vietnamese were no longer the guests but the hosts. Meanwhile, the Irish community — who had dominated the parish — had mostly moved away and he was one of the few remnants.
In a truly universal Church, all are equal and all share on a par in the mission of the Church. We see that now amply demonstrated in big occasions in Rome or at World Youth Days when the Universal Church is on display. But we also have the chance to reflect that in a truly universal parish where all are equal and all share on a par in the mission of the parish.
There are some clear marks of inclusion. How representative is the parish council of the people who make up the parish? Does the parish use music that comes from all the communities that are present? And if it does, is time taken to teach all the congregation music and lyrics that might not be familiar to them?
Which feast days are particularly celebrated? Just the ones dear to the group who founded the parish or also the ones important to those who have come into the parish?
We might take pride in organising a special parish event to use strange languages or to sing unknown hymns or to serve exotic foods. But in a universal Church these are not “other”—strange, exotic, curious—they are part of us as a community.
In South Africa, there is a further dimension in which we can demonstrate our universality. For too long, the Church was divided by the politics and geography of apartheid. Now, as people become more socially mobile, we see a more multi-coloured representation on our pews.
It Has to Be Deliberate
But I am afraid that I often see white people falling into the trap of approaching non-white parishioners and “welcoming you to our church”.
It may be well intentioned but the unspoken implication is: this is our church, this is how we do things, this is how we sing and sit and pray, this is the food we serve after Mass, these are the social events we organise — and you are welcome to participate in any of those as long as you abide by our rules.
A priest in a small KwaZulu-Natal town once told me with sadness about the re-establishment of apartheid in his parish.
“In the old days, when it was illegal to be together, we made a point of sharing the Mass. But now I have ‘a white Mass’ and ‘a black Mass’ — differentiated by language, by music, by customs and by duration. And the two groups of parishioners might as well be in different parishes or different churches, so little do they recognise each other!”
The Apostles struggled with these same problems — hence the debates in the early Church about the integration of Gentiles.
So we can take heart from their experience. And ask the Holy Spirit to give us the grace of generosity to be a truly Catholic Church by being universal not only across the world but also in our own parishes.
Read more articles by Raymond Perrier at www.scross.co.za/category/perspectives/raymond-perrier/