- Catholic Cultures: How Parishes can Respond to the Changing Face of Catholicism by Patricia Wittberg
On a warm September day in 2015, Pope Francis spoke to a large crowd gathered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States of America. This symbolic location called attention to provisions in the Constitution that foster religious pluralism. While paying tribute to the past, his remarks also served to illuminate the changing demographics of the country, and also to the changes within the composition of the American Catholic Church. Pope Francis exhorted Hispanic immigrants specifically, saying, “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions.”
Similarly, Sr. Patricia Wittberg, S.C., begins Catholic Cultures with a nod to the past. She outlines the various ethnic, language, and cultural dimensions of the early expressions of U.S. Catholicism before turning her attention to changing demographics. The first portion relies heavily on The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History and data from the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA). While the exposition of this material is somewhat dry, Wittberg does her best to weave in narrative from in-depth explorations of ethnic communities in large urban dioceses, such as Ana Maria Diaz-Stevens’s Oxcart [End Page 98] Catholicism, which looks at Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City and Catholicism, Chicago Style, an edited volume that offers parish-level examples from the Windy City. Wittberg paints a picture of the historical context of the church in America in the first two chapters by providing detail on the migration of various ethnic groups, how ethnic parishes were staffed by priests in various locations, and the tension between having a place to belong and being shut out of the “mainstream” Irish American church leadership and practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Chapter three begins to describe how predominantly Anglo-Catholic communities might welcome different ethnic groups into the fold. She summarizes work done by the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, which is an effort of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to respond to the growing phenomenon of “shared” parishes, those faith communities where liturgies and devotional practices are celebrated in more than one language. For clergy and lay leaders in diverse multilingual shared parishes, and especially in parishes that are both multicultural and poor, it is at this juncture that they may find themselves wishing Wittberg would offer hopeful real-life examples where ecclesial integration is being practiced. The data, which she presents in detail, demonstrates that there is an audience for this kind of material. In 2013, a CARA report showed that 6,700 parishes in the United States (or 36 percent of the total parishes) are serving one or more ethnic, racial, cultural, or language communities. However, Wittberg spends only a few pages answering the question, “What Can a Parish Do?” and in the process, emphasizes aspects of “welcome” over the deeper work of fostering genuine mutuality and kinship between and among parishioners with different cultural experiences. She saves the more nuanced examples of community building for the second half of the book, which focuses on what she calls “generational cultures.”
This part of the text is likely to be useful to those older clergy and lay leaders who are anxious to understand their younger parishioners (or prospective parishioners), not just in how they practice their faith, but in how Catholicism can be made relevant to them in order that they might stay within the church. Here, Wittberg shines. She astutely references a “hunger” for connectedness, community, and social justice among Millennial Catholics. She calls special attention to the unique factors for young women of faith. The book concludes by encouraging local church leaders to adopt some new methods and approaches that could reach Millennials who are...