Merging Disparate Cultures, Part Two

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. –– Melinda Quivik


Divergent Catholic traditions—venerated saints, worship patterns, songs, holidays, and so forth—must fit into the interstices of predominantly white Catholic spaces where they may or may not be understood, accepted, and integrated in practice. The kind of dialogue and integration promoted by Pope Francis has to happen within the context of uneven status and power. As one focus group respondent says, “I think for an Asian population to go into a predominantly white church, it’s really difficult.” Another adds, “I think white American Catholics do not understand Asian Catholic traditions at all. Whether it’s implicit bias, or subconscious racism. Even within the church, I definitely think that that’s a reality.”

Generating a positive parish experience often falls to ordained and lay leaders, who strive to embody intercultural competence and participatory leadership styles. One director of multicultural ministry I interviewed regarding personal parishes evokes Pope Francis’ tone setting a precedent for internal parish dynamics. She shares what Spanish-speaking parishioners in her own community are looking for in pastoral leadership.

“People, they are very respectful. They are very welcoming. Doesn’t matter if [the priest] is white or not. They want a warm priest, like our Pope Francis said, you know, “Don’t be afraid to laugh!” That is, you know, to be approachable. So, that is what people expect from the priest. To be an approachable person, and available at whatever time. The Spanish community is very demanding in that sense, because for them if you are religious, you must be available 24 hours for them, you know? That’s something that we need to work on [laughs].”

Another priest describes his own challenge to blend racially diverse communities within a single parish. “I’ve got to bring these two communities together as best I can: to organize Hispanics and the Anglos, and say ‘How can we bring this into one community?’” Two more pastors echo this challenge: “We have a different group here. Right here, I have a group of Americans; I have to offer the English Mass for them. And then the Vietnamese group, of course, in Vietnamese.” “Our parish is more complicated, because we have [an] American side with Korean community, come together. We discuss exactly same thing, but the way we understand and accept: different way. . .”

This, again, requires parishes to be flexible in the way that Pope Francis describes. . . Pastors and the parishes they lead must be attuned to accommodations across difference in age, cohort, language, immigrant generation, and more. This is not without its problems, as several observers note in their own descriptions of shared parishes.

Agency and structure work together to shape outcomes in the Catholic Church’s encounter with demographic change. Substantial changes necessitate substantial and ongoing responses. One focus group respondent said, “The culture of the Church needs to be changed.” Laity, leaders, bishops, parish structures, and Pope Francis all play a role in cultivating flexible and welcoming organizations, communities, and liturgies that can bridge lines of difference. . . The road to unity is uneven ... requiring vocal leadership from the top.

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.