Even events designed to address inclusion of every ethnic and cultural family in the Catholic Church can have their stumbles.
That’s what happened during “Alive in Christ: Young, Diverse, Prophetic Voices Journeying Together,” a multicultural national gathering of Catholic ministry leaders in Chicago June 23-26, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
There was a glitch in a group prayer June 24 — ironically, a prayer for unity. Words in Lakota, a Native American language, were projected on a screen, but not included in the printed script for those leading the prayer. Out of sync, the prayer lurched to an awkward conclusion.
“It triggered a whole lot of emotions,” Mar Muñoz-Visoso, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity at the USCCB, told Catholic News Service. “Some felt insulted.”
An apology was quickly issued, but speakers were still talking about the moment a day later. Muñoz-Visoso called the mishap — the result of a clerical error — “just a trigger for a conversation that needed to happen.”
Cecilia Flores, a community organizer at Sacramento Area Congregations Together, said at the June 25 plenary session, “for the people in the room, it was not a clerical error. It was like poking at a wound.”
About 350 attended the conference, with groupings representing African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and European Americans.
“It’s great to have people who grew up as I did to accompany me on my journey,” said Dallas Carter, diocesan catechist for the Diocese of Honolulu. But lack of accompaniment “breaks my heart. I like to think I’m like (Father) Damien (spiritual patron of outcasts), focused on the other.”
“I have found allies here,” said Jessica Gallegos, director of religious education at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Boise, Idaho. “Half the time we’re on our phones, myself included. We need each other. We can’t get through this life without each other.”
But Christian Bentley, a mental health advocate with the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, faulted the conference for not doing enough during the past two years of tragedies such as the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the recent school shootings in Uvalde, Texas.
“Not one mention of what our community has been through. Where was the shepherding? Where is the church shepherding me through that survival?”
Carter said that the key to action is not waiting for permission from church authorities. “I don’t need permission to be Christ to others.”
During the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carter and others joined forces to feed about 150,000, including elderly people who could not leave their homes, and schoolchildren who had depended on free school meals.
“You do not need permission to take care of yourselves,” he said. “Do not ask permission to start an organization to address the needs you have. Do not look for people outside — just do it. Don’t be afraid of failing — try again.”
Gallegos added, “The seat at the table — if it’s not big enough, you make it bigger.”
Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia continued the theme as he recalled his first parish, St. Ambrose, in Philadelphia in 1989.
“Blacks were moving in, whites were moving out,” Archbishop Pérez said, but he was shocked to be told, “We don’t have a Spanish Mass, and we don’t need it.”
So he started celebrating Masses in homes, beginning with one that had just five people attending. “I didn’t ask permission. I just did what I could do, and not what I couldn’t do.”
His supervising priest tried to get then-Father Pérez moved from the parish, but the archdiocese “moved him. So God moves straight with crooked lines.”
Archbishop Pérez added, “The people of God have a right to the sacraments. It’s not a privilege. And I had to figure it out.”
“The church is not in the business of teaching languages. It’s in the business of proclaiming the Gospel.”
The Chicago gathering was led by the USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, with the USCCB’s Secretariats of Catholic Education; Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations; Evangelization and Catechesis; and Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry also collaborated on the conference.