Catholic Free Press

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  • Mar
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Diversity in Church

Posted By March 20, 2014 | 12:45 pm | Lead Story #2

By Tanya Connor

Miguel Colón. Nicholas Benoit. Therece Nzimy Abarimwo.
These names were called out in St. Paul Cathedral March 9 during the Rite of Election. They reflect the diversity of individuals preparing to enter the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.
Parishes that have the largest number of people preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation are those with Hispanic communities. Two parishes also serve African communities. Many of the people are recent immigrants or the children of immigrants from various Spanish-speaking or African countries.
Catholics, and those preparing to become Catholic, may join any parish, regardless of their language or ethnic background. But certain parishes offer regular Masses and other events in languages besides English. That attracts people who speak that language and who wish to bring their culture to church with them. They build community, parish ministry workers say.
In this, the Worcester Diocese reflects a national trend.
“The number of Catholic parishes shared by culturally diverse communities grew … from 22 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2010, and all indicators show that this trend will continue in the next decade,” said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when announcing a new resource for parishes with diverse communities.
“Today it is estimated that 6,300 parishes around the country serve ethnic, language and culturally diverse communities. This is due in great part to immigration, but state population changes and parish mergers and closings also play a factor.”
In Worcester, St. Peter’s, St. Joan of Arc and St. Paul Cathedral have had Hispanic communities and Spanish Masses, in addition to the English ones, for three or four decades. Blessed John Paul II Parish, which was formed with the merging of Southbridge parishes a few years ago, incorporated the Hispanic community that had been at St. Mary Parish there for decades, with a once predominately French community and a once predominately Polish community.
In 2000, an African Catholic community was officially established at St. Peter’s. Less than 10 years later, the Ghanaian community there moved across the city to St. Joan of Arc.
Other Africans from different countries later moved services from St. Peter’s basement to its mission church, St. Andrew the Apostle. As soon as they started having weekly African Mass at St. Andrew’s, more people got involved, including those seeking sacraments, said Father Anthony Mpagi, diocesan chaplain for African Ministry. They had more of a sense of belonging to the community, he said.
This year for the first time St. Peter’s-St. Andrew’s has a significant number of Africans in the RCIA, said pastoral minister Sister Ann Marie Marshall, a Religious Sister of Mercy. More than half of the catechumens (those needing baptism and the other sacraments of initiation)  and about a fourth of the candidates (those already baptized but wanting Eucharist and confirmation) are Africans, and most of the rest are Hispanics, she said.
When she started working with the RCIA some 20 years ago, the parish had more than 60 catechumens and candidates a year. Later the numbers declined to the 50s, and the last three or four years it’s been in the 40s, Sister Ann Marie said.
Many are children of immigrants who were not in any location long enough to be baptized, she said. Others are adults needing to be confirmed – before getting married, or having a cultural marriage from their country regularized by the Church and brought into compliance with United States’ civil laws.
Many of the Africans were forced from their own countries by tribal wars, Sister Ann Marie said. The African countries they fled to as refugees wanted them to leave, and eventually they arrived here.
“I just marvel that they survived as well as they have,” she said; missionaries must have planted the faith well, for them to hold onto it through everything and seek sacraments now.
To Africans, the faith and what it requires of them is very important, Father Mpagi said.
St. Peter-St. Andrew’s Africans in the RCIA are primarily from two countries. Burundians came here four or five years ago and some Kenyan Christians are now converting to Catholicism, Father Mpagi said.
“This is a sign of maturity – they’re getting settled, becoming part of a parish,” he said. When they first arrive, they look for housing and work, he said. And it takes awhile to find the Burundians’ sacramental paperwork, given their history as refugees.
St. Peter-St. Andrew’s pastor, Msgr. Francis J. Scollen, attributed the RCIA numbers to the high immigrant population in the neighborhood, the parish’s welcoming spirit and outreach programs such as a food bank and English as a Second Language classes, which he said are part of evangelization.
But, he said, “the key is Sister Ann Marshall,” who “works very hard at this.” He also praised the work Father Mpagi did with Africans and the faith sharing St. Peter Central Catholic Elementary School does.
“We’ve always had a lot of people,” Msgr. Scollen said. Before the RCIA was begun, St. Peter’s held baptisms for adults and children age 7 and above twice a year, he said. Now all are baptized at the Easter Vigil.
“I guess what strikes me, like at St. Peter’s, is that they make it work as a community,” said Elizabeth A. Marcil, diocesan director of the Office of Religious Education who calls the catechumens’ names at the Rite of Election. “They’re … all in there together.” She recalled Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
She said a few years ago Bishop McManus said he saw at the Rite of Election that the face of the Catholic Church in Worcester is changing.
“It’s the face of the Church of the future,” said Msgr. Scollen. He said Bishop Reilly always thanks St. Peter’s people “for being already what the Church in the United States will become.”
He recalled that in the early 1990s an African priest  assigned to St. Peter’s found few African Catholics. Later, as Africans came to Worcester, they gravitated to St. Peter’s, he said. So when the diocesan African ministry was started, the African community was already there.
Father Miguel A. Pagán, St. Joan of Arc’s pastor, said most of the parish’s Ghanaians received the sacraments of initiation in Ghana. He said, however, many need their marriages regularized.
Almost all of the people in this year’s RCIA are Hispanics, he and Elizabeth Drake, RCIA coordinator, said.
For the last 10 years St. Joan of Arc has had about five to seven catechumens and about 15 candidates per year, all but three or four of them Hispanics, Father Pagán said.
About half the people in the RCIA at Blessed John Paul II Parish are Hispanics who came here recently or as children, said Father Nelson J. Rivera, associate pastor. He said members of the long-time Polish and French communities have already received the sacraments of initiation and the younger ones consider themselves Americans.
He said there is a strong faith community there; members encourage others to receive the sacraments.
“It’s just a personal relationship with people,” he said. “That makes them feel important and they want to be part of it.”