Merging Disparate Cultures, Part One

Tricia C. Bruce

Tricia C. Bruce

This posting from the April 2018 issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pastoral Liturgy and Pope Francis,” guest-edited by Katharine Harmon, looks at Pope Francis’ “revolution of tenderness” as a way to envision evangelization in our era. This essay by Tricia C. Bruce looks at the demographic changes in Catholic communities.

Protestants and Roman Catholics alike may find in Pope Francis’ words about sharing the gospel message new ways to imagine inviting people into faith or into deeper faith. But it is not always easy to make the necessary changes.

The following is an excerpt from Bruce’s essay regarding how different cultures interact when brought together in one congregation. It is safe to say that all churches may be facing the very same problems with change.–– Melinda Quivik


Narrowing in on the encounter with diverse demographics in the U.S.—a nation with more immigrants than any other—we see Pope Francis’ expressed principles of unity in diversity tested. Today, a quarter of the U.S. population identifies as Catholic: some seventy-four million Americans. While Catholics’ share of the U.S. population has held fairly steady in recent decades, this masks an important demographic trend reshaping contemporary American Catholicism: the high percentage of foreign-born Catholics. Fewer than one in ten American Catholics were foreign-born in 1975; today, more than one in four. While most first-generation American Catholics emigrate from Mexico and other Latin American countries, an increasing number come from Asian countries including Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines.

. . . The U.S. Catholic Church is becoming less white, more Hispanic, and more Asian. Africans and African Americans maintain a smaller share of the total Catholic population, but immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere also increase the ethnic diversity of American dioceses and the communities they inhabit.

How are local Catholicism and local Catholics engaging these new sociocultural realities in the era of Pope Francis? . . . This invites a closer look at parishes, the primary place through which Catholics live out their faith lives collectively.

Acknowledging parishes as occupying the nexus of encounters with cultural difference, Pope John Paul II spoke frequently of the parish as a “community of communities.” Pope Francis echoes this phrasing in Evangelii Gaudium, describing the parish as “the presence of the Church in a given territory” and “a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.” Parishes act as windows into structural and lived encounters with demographic change.

Sociologically, parishes provide clues that tell us about changes to the structure of the church as well as in the agency of individual Catholics. The former draws attention to the power of institutional elites to shape organizations and broader systems; the latter opens space to consider individual Catholics’ own participation in and shaping of Catholic parishes. . .

Pope Francis—in incorporating and training racially diverse church leaders, advocating for flexible parish structures, and setting a tone of integration and welcome locally—leads the church in constituting communities in light of changed demographics.

. . . The share of American Catholics who are foreign-born will continue to require flexible parishes and leaders’ intentional efforts to build community across difference. Local dioceses will continue to look to creative and effective systems of parish organization that can serve an increasingly diverse set of needs. Beyond changes to the composition of Catholic communities, the very meaning of community may begin to evolve, as dioceses—even more so than parishes, perhaps—become core sites of interconnection and unity.

While Catholicism’s connective roots extend deep into history, its contemporary face continues to change. Maintaining adherents and relevance in the contemporary world will be dependent upon how a pope, a people, and a parish respond, accordingly.

Bruce’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 2 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Tricia C. Bruce is an associate professor of sociology at Maryville College and at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Her books include Faithful Revolution, Polarization in the US Catholic Church, and Parish and Place.

Tricia C. Bruce, “A Pope, a People, and a Parish: How Changing Demographics Are Changing Catholic Communities,” Liturgy 33, no. 2 (2018): 28-36.

David Turnbloom