Priests confront issues of multiculturalism


SAN ANTONIO — Msgr. Thomas Evatt and Father Rick Harris represented the priests of the Diocese of Charleston at the recent National Federation of Priest’s Councils (NFPC) annual convention and House of Delegates meeting. The annual convention confronted the growing challenge to presbyterates and parishes around the country regarding the issue of multiculturalism.

“From the Many, One Church” was the overall theme of the assembly of more than 200 priests representing 100 dioceses, priests’ councils and religious institutes from around the country and the world. The gathering reflected a diversity in itself with priests from backgrounds representing Mexican, Indian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, African-American, Filipino, Vietnamese and European-American cultures.

Keynote speaker for the convention was Sanguinist Father Robert Schreiter, a professor of doctrinal theology and director of the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Father Schreiter has spent most of his ordained life immersed in study and lecturing on issues of multiculturalism. Father Schreiter’s presentation focused on the history of multiculturalism in the United States and the current reality of many cultures trying to come together as one Church. He highlighted the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which spelled out two very important teachings: the right of every person to culture itself, and the right to development in culture. Father Schreiter stated very clearly that “to take away a person’s culture is to damage a person grievously.”

Father Schreiter set the tone for the entire convention by highlighting three goals in effective cultural interaction:

1) Recognition of the other. This is sometimes as basic as recognizing that people of other cultures are here, including celebrating differences in parish activities through the music and language in liturgies, and something as basic and important as including their food in parish social events.

2) Respect for cultural difference. Father Schreiter said that this “means coming to value the difference in its own right, that it adds to the richness of the world,” as opposed to acknowledgment of difference which “may mean putting up quietly with difference, with the silent hope that it will eventually go away.”

3) Healthy interaction among cultures. This interaction technique is marked by displaying “confidence about the value of one’s own culture and a sense of security that is not threatened by an encounter with difference,” as opposed to the not uncommon interaction marked by “unwarranted suspicion, racism, conflict, and even overt violence.” Father Schreiter noted that such confidence in one’s own cultural identity is not easy to achieve for a lot of white Americans, using the analogy that “a fish doesn’t know it’s in water until it’s out of the water.”

Panel participants reflected on experiences and difficulties encountered in trying to facilitate the integration of a different cultural group. Affirming Father Schreiter’s three goals, Bishop John McCarthy of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, said that we must approach multiculturalism with both a seriousness and a sense of humor, and the “unity, reconciliation and healing must be regularly on the agendas of pastoral and presbyteral councils.”

Comments and questions from the floor raised awareness of priests’ own struggles with the issue.

Father Donald Wolf, NFPC president, shared an insight from a Native American in his own Archdiocese of Oklahoma City: “We can talk the truth, but can we dance it?”

Participants were challenged by presenters Sanguinist Father Clarence Williams, director of the Institute for Recovery from Racism, and Roberto Pina, a speaker on African-American/Hispanic/Latino dialogue, staff member of the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) and co-author with Father Williams of People of the Pyramids, as they addressed the issue of pastoring in a multicultural and multiracial environment. Pina voiced concern not only about how little we know about each other, but how little many of us know of our own cultural histories. He encouraged those gathered to reflect on their roles as pastoral leaders and to be confident in their own cultural identity. Using a quote from Albert Einstein, he noted, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.”

Father Williams followed up with a clear challenge to the group to expand their vision, to see as workers in the vineyard and prophets of the Gospel with four eyes: the first eye of race, the second eye of culture, the third of multiculturalism and the fourth, enlightened eye of social agency. This fourth eye is meant to help us focus on how we are using our power to act and on whose behalf. Father Williams emphasized that our concept of “whiteness” is a construct conferred on people that places them “above.” He asked, “As a priesthood are we building a new social order or maintaining the current order?” Father Williams also noted that there are stages that will lead us to racial sobriety similar to the stages of a 12-step recovery program. “Conversion has to happen at a personal level and only then will it begin to effect societal change.”

At a Mass at San Fernando Cathedral, Archbishop Patricio Flores reflected on the necessity of cultures coming together in “their diversity and richness,” that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. He began his homily by reflecting on the rich Hispanic heritage of the people of his archdiocese and lamenting the lack of cultural identity of most Anglo-Americans. “What does it mean to call oneself American? It is white, privileged, middle class, upwardly mobile …?” In reality, he said, “our identity and unity is first and foremost in the Lord. It is from there that we start, for it is also there that our hope is to one day be united.”

The NFPC also honored Father Jack Davis, a priest of the Fargo Diocese and a member of the St. James Society, with the President’s Award for his work among the poor in Chimbote, Peru. Father Davis is a co-worker with Msgr. Don Gorski. Father Davis, in a pre-award interview, commented on the convention: “Ultimately faithfulness is what we’re all about. Success, if we are privileged to be witness to it, is up to God.”

In addition to the primary conferences, a series of workshops were offered addressing other issues related to priests such as: Empowering Leadership through Faith and Culture, Priest Compensation Issues and Retirement Planning, Welcoming Foreign-Born Priests and Seminarians, Capital Punishment, Ministry within the Mexican Catholic Community, and Pastoring Through Empowerment Rather than Paternalism.

The next National Federation of Priests’ Councils Convention and House of Delegates meeting will be held in Oakland, Calif., May 1-4, 2000.