There is something remarkably universal about most Catholic parishes in the U.S.: Our parishioners come from everywhere. The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, is a presence in every country, speaks every language and summons every soul. The very word “catholic” means universal, and that quality is manifest. Some parishes in the Washington, D.C., area look like the United Nations! So many countries and cultures are represented; dozens of languages are spoken by parishioners.
While some like to emphasize the diversity, which is indeed a great gift, I think it is more important to emphasize the unity that unlocks its power. There is a tendency today to speak of diversity in a detached way, as if it were an end in itself. Pursuit of diversity for its own sake can be a bludgeon with its demands for recognition and resources.
The various and diverse parts of the human body are only able to work together through the head. Without the head, the diverse parts cease to function and fall into decay. Each of the many spokes of a wagon wheel is only able to do its part when connected to the others through the hub at the center; otherwise they become detached and even dangerous. So, diversity needs a context; there must be something in common that unites the other diverse parts.
Scripture says, “The body is a unit, though it is comprised of many parts. And although its parts are many, they all form one body. So it is with Christ,” (1 Cor 12:12) and, “You were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-5).
In our best moments, our Catholic parishes manifest a rich diversity but one that is rooted in fundamental unity and equal status before God. We come before God like blind beggars, whatever our wealth, status or origin. We are all poor; we are wayward and needy. We are like little children whom God must watch at every moment lest we do something dangerous or foolish. Bishops shed their miters and become “me, your unworthy servant.” The clergy and the laity are before God the Father, in need of immense mercy and every good grace.
Anthony Esolen writes eloquently of God’s people kneeling before the altar:
“Consider, where else [outside the Church] do the rich and the poor meet as brothers? Where does the professor break bread with the janitor? … Where does the manager of millions confess his utter poverty? Where is the mayor a minor? Where is the president a beggar? Where else does anyone hear, ‘Unless you become as these little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven’” (Mt 18:3)?
Yes, at her best, the Church shows forth the truth that, whatever our race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, the ground is level at the foot of the altar. God is not impressed with human titles and honorifics. I can assure you, dear reader, that the Lord does not call me “Monsignor.” No indeed, He calls me “Carlito” (little Charlie).
Unfortunately, the emphasis in recent years on diversity without reference to unity has influenced the Church’s thinking and liturgy. Too often we have focused on ourselves rather than God, becoming concerned with human distinctions such as language, ethnicity, race and socio-economic status. I’d like to think that if a large number of my parishioners were Spanish-speaking, I could learn to enjoy celebrating Mass in Spanish, but I’d also like to think that we could all learn more Latin so that we have that in common, whatever our native tongue. Ethnic music has its place but so does chant, which is the common heritage of every Catholic. Knowing the story of different races and ethnicities is good, but so is knowing the Scriptures and seeing them as our common story. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.
It is hard to get diversity right if the central unifying force is neglected. Only when we all focus on the Lord and see our common status as blind beggars and needy children can our diversity bless us; without that it is too easy to use diversity to bludgeon.
Consider well, then, the great Catholic truth that the ground is level at the foot of the altar. Meditate on the beautiful picture painted by Esolen: all of us facing God, kneeling before Him in need of immense grace and mercy. Rich or poor, we are all destitute before God and in need of His grace for every beat of our heart.
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