Thursday, January 30, 2003

Divisive Diversity

Last year, our bishop began a program of Cultural Diversity Awareness throughout the diocese. A program of weekly sessions was established for all parishioners to study our differences. The city where the Bishop is located is racially polarized. I suspected the program was his effort to bring the races together by gaining respect for cultural differences. Our pastor, who had recently been transferred from that area, indicated that division also exists among people of various ethnic backgrounds. Printed material accompanying the weekly sessions seemed to indicate a belief that this problem was widespread. Perhaps I am na�ve, but I don�t believe we have that problem in our rural area of the diocese.

Reading through the session booklet, several statements struck me as peculiar. For example, the great melting pot model seemed to be portrayed as a bad thing. That idea had not previously occurred to me. I view the imagery of varying ethnic backgrounds melding into one society as binding and strengthening our nation. The program text, however, carried the model further stating that products of the great melting pot are then forced into molds. I always thought of the melting pot as the endpoint of the simile. Our society is like a great melting pot. Any molding beyond that point is a natural progression and not something that is unnaturally forced.

Our parish ancestors were primarily European (Slovaks, Italians, Polish, German). The first and maybe second generation immigrants were ethnically identifiable, but by the time we third and fourth generation offspring came along, the lines of demarcation were becoming obscure. As a child growing up in the 1950�s and 60�s, I was not aware of differences in ethnic origin. I was the product of a Slovak mother and a father who was already somewhat �melted� down. When Hispanic families, primarily Mexican, moved into the area, we were reminded of cultural differences by occasional language barriers and their darker complexions, but we all seemed to get along. We went to school together, worshiped together, worked together, and socialized together. I realize that this is not the case everywhere.

When the program for Cultural Diversity Awareness came along, it seemed to try to address a problem that we didn�t necessarily have. We were asked to list ethnic customs and note differences. Such programs effectively send a message that others are different from you, but that�s okay. We need to be tolerant.

Okay, that�s fine and I agree. But, one of the side effects of being reminded our cultural differences is a reinforcement of division. Awareness of Cultural diversity may lead to cultural divergency. We think it necessary to demonstrate our acceptance of the ways of others by catering to their cultural differences. We offer Masses in other languages, and politely participate in cross-cultural ceremonies and programs. Since these ways are not our ways, we may become condescending. Some may become resentful if we cater to one culture at the exclusion of another.

Shortly after the Cultural Awareness Program began, our parish was subjected to an Aztec Liturgical Dance in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at a Sunday Mass. While I respect the customs of other cultures, I resented the imposition of a liturgical dance in my Sunday worship. The dance, the costumes and the music was interesting. Conducted as a cultural program outside of the Mass, it would have been a wonderful exhibition. Liturgical dance is not permitted in Catholic Churches in America and having this take place at Mass was distracting and inappropriate. This was our time of worship and this is not how we worship.

Our pastor now celebrates a Spanish Mass every Sunday. Hispanic families who we have worshiped with for many years and speak perfect English, now began to worship separately from the rest of us. While we do have some families who do not speak English well, perhaps we would be serving them better by providing help learning our language and have them worship together with us as one body.

Prior to Vatican II, the Mass was universally celebrated in Latin. People could follow along using a missal with the Latin on one side and the vernacular on the other. While I am not necessarily advocating a return to Latin, the Mass was more unifying. We were all in the same boat, no matter what language we spoke. Immigrants to the United States could find comfort in the familiarity of the Mass. It was something to make them feel like they were home. Of course, the homilies were in the vernacular, and ethnic parishes existed everywhere. They still do in many cities.

The problems that divide us go far beyond ethnic customs and cultural behavior. Cultural differences may be relatively inconsequential when it comes to polarization. Perhaps the Church could be more effective stressing our similarities in the eyes of God. Regardless of our ethnic origin, race, cultural background, economic status, occupation, or social class, we are all members of the mystical Body of Christ. We are the church militant, part of the communion of saints. We are all in this world together, regardless of our differences. Every thought, word and action, including the way we think, speak and behave toward others, either draws us closer to Christ or pushes us away.