|EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR'S CORNER.......................................................................|
Many commentators on American culture today have noted the negative role played by fear in our country especially since the tragedy of 9/11. As Catholics rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ we know that the role of fear in shaping people’s attitudes and actions is powerful indeed. Scripture scholars tell us that one of the most repeated biblical messages is “Be not afraid!” Yet events like 9/11 continue to raise new fears in us. One such reality is terrorism; another is immigration. People often experience newcomers, people who speak foreign languages, look and act differently from one’s own culture, as a threat to our way of life and to our many “comfort zones.”
The Catholic Church plays a critical role in our country today helping bridge newcomers with the established communities. So the Church continues to preach Jesus’ same message: “Be not afraid.” This bridge-building role is nothing new to the Church. When you read U.S. Catholic Church history going back centuries you find that it never ceased being one of the primary mediums for the integration of new cultures into the wider U.S. environment. It did that for the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Slavic peoples and so many others. Today, without question, the Catholic Church is building bridges between the growing non-European communities and the well-established European American one. Consider, for example, that almost 4000 of our 18,500 parishes in the country offer services in Spanish and many other languages as well. There are a growing number of “shared parishes,” that is, parishes with services for at least two distinct cultural groups, sometimes three or more. The Catholic Church is good at this. That is why the U.S. government contracts with the USCCB’s Migrant Refugee Services to settle thousands of refugees every year. One third of all refugees that come to the U.S. every year are settled through this agency with, of course, the generous cooperation of Catholic Charities, dioceses and parishes throughout the nation.
How should the thoughtful Catholic view the Church’s role in the integration of cultures, as a threat to the integrity of our American ways or as a blessing, a boon, for both our country and for the Church? The bishops have not hesitated to answer the question. This diversity is a blessing even though it does bring challenges and even discomfort and pain. This is an instance of the truth of the old sayings, “No pain, no gain;” or, “No pain, no growth.”
A few years ago when I lived in California I had an experience that helped me see more clearly the real significance of the growing Hispanic presence in our country. I received a call from a leader in the Archdiocese of Dubuque in Iowa asking me to spend a couple of days with the Archbishop, priests, deacons, men and women religious and lay ecclesial ministers of that Archdiocese discussing Hispanic ministry, its background, premises and relevance to the rapidly changing Catholic demographics of Iowa. I was told that farm town parishes in Iowa were “changing over night” as Mexican immigrant workers arrived to fill all kinds of essential jobs that no one else was stepping up to take. This was causing many stresses and everyone needed to take a breather and learn more about the way to respond, one consistent with the norms given by the bishops over many decades of reflection on the growing Hispanic presence. I said I would be happy to do so and we set a date.
The very next day after this phone call was Sunday and I found myself on supply having finished saying the 7:45 AM Spanish language Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in La Habra, CA. My friend, Father Matt Muñoz, one of the younger priests of the diocese, saw me in the sacristy and invited me for coffee in the rectory. Matt is a dynamic and zealous priest whom I have known since he was 14 years old.
Matt asked me what I was doing the coming week. I said I was gong to Waterloo, Iowa the next day to give a workshop on Hispanic ministry to Archdiocesan leaders. And I explained the concern about how the Church was changing there due to immigration. He thought for a moment and said, “Well, you tell the people there that on Sunday you were sitting having coffee with the grandson of the most famous Iowan of all time, John Wayne.” Suddenly I made the connection. Yes, Matt is John Wayne’s grandson, the son of Wayne’s daughter Melinda. Matt went on to say, “You tell them that my grandfather on my mom’s side was John Wayne and on my dad’s side, Fernando Muñoz, a farm worker from Mexico. You might also remind them that my grandfather Wayne was married to a committed Catholic lady, my grandmother Josefina Sáenz, and raised all his children as Catholics. That is one of the big reasons I am a priest.”
That story stuck in my mind and imagination. As I reflected on this it dawned on me that it is really an emblematic story, one that demonstrates the fascinating possibilities that the movement of people and cultures brings with it. John Wayne is certainly a bigger-than-life figure of mythic dimensions. He is a symbol of many qualities Americans find attractive and positive. Combining that symbol with the hardworking, sacrificing, family-oriented, Catholic farm laborer is a really neat idea and, if Matt is any measure, the results are terrific for both the Church and our country! Could this story be about a wonderful change taking place in the “American myth”?
As you can imagine it came as quite a revelation to the Catholic Iowans in Waterloo the morning of my first talk when I began with this anecdote. It got their attention and even stimulated their imaginations to think differently, change attitudes, about the “invasion of the Mexicans.” I also mentioned to them another fact: John Wayne became a Catholic on his deathbed, received into the Church by the Archbishop of Panama.
One elderly gentleman came up to me later and said, “Well, I think you’re right when you say John Wayne is the most famous Iowan of all time, but a few die-hards might say that it was Herbert Hoover.”
Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, STD, Ph.D.
A Message from the Executive Director
Effective pastoral ministry depends on the ability to respond to the needs of people in a way that respects their identity and deepest values...