Dear Brothers and Sisters
One of the great strengths of American Catholicism has been the energy, commitment and faith of our various immigrant communities. In the nineteenth century great waves of European immigrants came to America from Catholic countries. They brought not only their Catholic faith, but a rich variety of cultures, customs, languages and traditions.
In the Northern cities individual ethnic parishes blossomed. In one town there would be an Irish parish, an Italian parish, a Polish parish, a Czech parish and a Ukrainian parish just to name a few. The immigrant’s Catholicism was a strong part of their family identity and their community identity, and the different cultural traditions of Catholicism provided a rich and varied expression of the universality of the Catholic faith.
The same thing continues today as we welcome Vietnamese, Hispanic, Pilipino, African, Indian and European Catholics to our shores. However, with every strength there is also a problem. Individual cultures are important, but the Catholic faith transcends them all. If the practice of the Catholic faith is too completely interwoven with a person’s cultural and ethnic traditions, then the universality and transcendence of the Catholic faith can be diminished or lost. If a person identifies their Catholicism with their ethnicity or the culture of their homeland, then when the next generation ceases to be so strongly cultural they may also cease to be strongly Catholic.
The word “Catholic” means universal. By definition, to be Catholic means we value, yet we also transcend our own national cultures. We have a higher loyalty and a greater unity with all Catholic brothers and sisters.
This higher loyalty demands a greater commitment than the merely cultural commitment. It’s not really good enough to say, “I’m Catholic because I’m Italian.” or “I’m Catholic because I’m Irish.” Instead we affirm that we are Catholic because we have decided to follow Jesus Christ the Lord.
This great commitment which comes through an authentic encounter with Christ may be expressed through our cultural and ethnic traditions, but it is also greater than those traditions. It is this great commitment which binds us together in the church and which empowers us to serve Christ in a dynamic and compassionate way in the world.