One of the most beautiful things about the Catholic Church is its universality.
Whether in the United States, Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East and regardless of language, the sacrifice of the Mass is the same — the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ isn’t limited by geography.
Here in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the universality of the Church is evident, if you look for it. This week’s Steadfast in Faith highlights an existing group of African Catholic immigrants who have established a new home at St. Norbert Parish in Florissant.
With rotating Masses to accommodate native Swahili and French speakers (the community represents nearly a dozen countries across the African continent), their worship is a vibrant expression of faith. The group formed more than a decade ago to reflect African cultures through their practice of the Catholic faith.
“We feared they were losing their (Catholic) faith to other faiths, which are more African oriented, because they don’t understand the American culture as well,” said Agnes Gitau, a native of Kenya who co-founded the St. Louis International African Catholic Community. “We decided to form a group whereby we can pray and exercise our Catholic faith in our own culture.”
The Archdiocese of St. Louis was built upon an immigrant Church. Our centuries-old model relied heavily on an influx of Catholics who immigrated from Western and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
The model of Church as it exists today grew out of those early immigrants who came here and made great sacrifices to build a structure reflective of their experiences in the Old World. The All Things New strategic pastoral planning effort is reevaluating our current structure to ensure that it remains sustainable for generations to come.
While the Church has shifted in size over the years, we have seen a resurgence here of smaller yet vibrant immigrant communities from all over the world. We should make it part of our mission to be welcoming to these communities and to accommodate their cultural and language needs.
In 2000, the U.S. bishops wrote in a pastoral letter, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” about the importance of coming together amidst the diverse ways in which we practice the Catholic faith. “Previous immigrants had come predominantly from Europe or as slaves from Africa, but many of the new immigrants come from Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia,” they wrote. “This diversity of ethnicity, education and social class challenges us as pastors to welcome these new immigrants and help them join our communities in ways that are respectful of their cultures and in ways that mutually enrich the immigrants and the receiving Church.”
The bishops also wrote that more recent immigrants have not always felt welcomed in the Church. “For those who live far from concentrated populations of people who share their heritage, there is often no alternative but to struggle through the English Mass while the deepest expressions of their spirit cry out silently in another language,” they wrote. “Where the Church has not been welcoming, many have turned to other sources of community and religious fulfillment, but at the expense of abandoning the riches of their Catholic faith and native traditions.”
As we move forward in considering the future of our Church here in the archdiocese, let us not forget the beauty found in our diversity.