Diversity and Unity

‘Powerful Gift of Cultural Diversity’

In the very first homily he delivered in the Diocese of San Diego, Bishop Robert McElroy noted that virtually every nationality and culture was vibrantly present in the local Church.

“Cultural diversity constitutes a powerful gift of the Holy Spirit palpably here in our midst,” he said, and he pledged to foster a Church culture “that honors unity and diversity equally in forming this Body of Christ.”

Under his leadership, the diocese has strengthened the cultural communities, added new ones to the fold, and raised their profile in the local Church. He’s invited their leaders to participate in decision-making councils and commissions at the diocese. The diverse voices, united in their love of God, serve as a powerful antidote to divisions roiling society.

In 2017, the bishop re-energized the Office for Ethnic and Intercultural Communities and tapped Father Michael Pham, himself a refugee from Vietnam, to lead it.

Father Pham and his assistants have worked tirelessly to help the communities to preserve their faith traditions and to share them with the greater Catholic community. They include African American, Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, Italian, Korean, Laotian, Native American, Samoan and Vietnamese communities. 

Traditionally, the cultures kept to themselves, holding their Masses and celebrations for their own communities. In 2018, the office invited all of the cultures to come together for the inaugural Pentecost Mass for All People, to be celebrated by Bishop McElroy

In a matter of weeks they had to get to know each other and come together to organize such an intricate event, which included a festival with traditional foods and music after the Mass.

They bridged cultures and languages and held a beautiful Mass, which drew a full house of  

1,600 to Good Shepherd Church, many clad in their native attire, for this colorful feast of faith and culture. 

The following year, the diocese moved the Mass to Cathedral Catholic High School to accommodate hundreds more. 

In 2020, the Pentecost Mass was in line to be canceled as the Covid-19 pandemic was gaining ground. But the cultural leaders wanted to continue their extraordinary Mass and challenged the diocese to come up with a way to do so.

The result was a Mass held virtually, with Bishop McElroy able to join  members of the cultural communities through a giant TV screen,  with the whole celebration live-streamed.

The number of communities participating in this Mass has continued to grow. The fifth annual edition, held in June 4, 2022, drew more than 2,000 faithful. 

In collaboration with Father Pham, the bishop has empowered cultural leaders to develop events and programs meaningful to them and the diocese. They organized five online forums, called “My Church, My Story: Listen, Dialogue and Action,” from August of 2020 to February of 2021. 

Each forum featured speakers who shared their story about how racism had affected their life, particularly in the Church. Then, participants were invited to propose ways their parishes, diocese and the Church itself could root out racism.

The Office organized special Masses, celebrated by the bishop, to call attention to the pain two populations were enduring and to pray for racial healing. The first was held on June 7, 2020, for the African American community in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The second one was held April 15, 2021, to accompany the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, which had been the target of assaults and deadly violence across the country. 

Semret Kelit, whose roots are in Eritrea, helped to organize the forums on racism. “It says a lot about what we can do in our Church if given an opportunity to participate,” she said. “We can contribute. We can implement. We can be part of change.”

Mass with African American Community: ‘This must be a moment of transformation’

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy delivered the following Homily during a special Mass with the Catholic African American Community at the Church of The Immaculata on June 7, 2020. The Mass was to pray with that community, following the murder of George Floyd and the massive protests that followed.

          Today’s Feast of the Holy Trinity provides a powerful backdrop to the terrible events which have led to and proceeded from the murder of George Floyd. For in the identity and actions of the Father, Son and Spirit we find the charter for how we, as people of faith, must confront this moment of injustice and racial hatred, this moment of anger, despair and hope.

     The beautiful act of the Father in creation presents to us the foundation for every truth that matters about racial prejudice and the unity of the human family.   It is the gift of creation in which we find the root of all of the blessings that we know in our lives on this earth. And it is in the deliberate decision of the Father to create the human person in God’s own image and likeness that we see the eternal mandate that we must recognize in everyone that we meet an equal son or daughter of God. There are no children of a lesser god on this earth.  We are all equal in the human family that God alone has made as one.

    The doctrine of original sin teaches us that sin entered the world not through divine action, but through human failing.  And the actuality of original sin that burdens us from our first breath lies in the fact that we are born into a world where God’s beautiful design of love and blessings has been deformed by structures that not only do not speak of God, but lead us directly away from God – grotesque economic inequalities, war and institutionalized violence, destruction of life in the womb, and the devastation of the environment.

     But of all the elements of original sin that weigh down our humanity, racial, ethnic and cultural prejudice are the most hateful and unceasing. It is a bitter mystery of the human soul why we find contentment in looking down upon, isolating and vilifying others because of the color of their skin or their national background. And it is particularly vile that we erect fences around racial and ethnic groups in the core of our souls, refusing so often even to recognize the sinfulness of the prejudice that lurks within us, whether that prejudice be overt or subtle, spoken or acted upon.

     The act of creation is gracious and expansive. It conveys to every person the right to the goods of this world, to equal claims in dignity and society, and to every dimension of justice. God the Father weeps over our continuous refusal to bring this same graciousness into our relationships with others. God grieves that the structures of racism and inequality become imbedded in our ways of thinking, our cultural assumptions, our patterns of residence and friendship and worship.  As we give thanks to God the Father this day for the beauty of the created order, we must confront the disjunction between the Father’s intentions for our world and the social realities that we have created in our vindictiveness, selfishness and pride. We must acknowledge our sin and we must amend.

      If our contemplation of the glory of the Father reveals our continuous unfaithfulness to the plan of God in allowing racism to flourish in our hearts and in our world, our closeness to the Son places the human suffering born of racism at the center of our prayer and action this day.

     God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into our midst to teach us how to live and to convey to us that God’s love has no reservation. The incomparable sign of that love is the cross of Jesus Christ.  God could have redeemed the world without ever having his Son die on the cross. He embraced the cross as a sign of atonement for our sins and as a testimony to the fundamental truth of our faith that when we or someone we love is deeply suffering in this life, we turn to a God not of distance and abstraction, but a God who knows intimately what physical, emotional and spiritual suffering are because he endured them all in his passion and crucifixion.

     It is for this reason that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith – a piercing witness to the reality that God stands with us in our suffering and that God demands that we work to end the sufferings of others imposed by our own actions or that of our society.

     At this moment, we must confront the reality that ever since the first black men were forcibly brought to Virginia to labor in bondage, the African American community in the United States has been hung upon the cross in a uniquely systematic manner rivaled only by our country’s treatment of Native Americans.

     This time of the cross did not end with emancipation. It did not end with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that professed to bring equality in dignity and rights. The African American community’s time on the cross did not end with the civil rights movement nor with the election of a black president.

     This time on the cross continues in the interconnecting legacies of slavery and racial prejudice that have produced economic and social barriers to progress for the African American community in every sector of our national life.  It continues in residential segregation that magnifies inequalities in education and opportunity. This time on the cross has been rampant in this time of COVID, as black Americans were forced to bear greater burdens of exposure and risk in keeping our society alive during these days of lockdown. And this time on the cross continues to be embodied in the horrific fear of every black mother and father, every wife and husband, that their son or daughter or spouse may be the next victim of police violence rooted in racial prejudice, callousness,  indifference or animus.

     If our love for Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross, is to have meaning for us as people of faith, it must compel us to move dramatically and unceasingly to end the institutionalized suffering which the African American community has endured all throughout our history as a people. We cannot simply pass by in silence, as the crowd did while our Lord was crucified.

      On this Trinity Sunday, we remember that the Father gives to us God’s loving plan for human history and solidarity.  The Son accompanies us in our own suffering and demands that we accompany others in their days of agony.  But it is the Spirit who breathes us as disciples and as a community of faith to renew the face of the earth.

     This moment in our nation’s long crucifixion of the African American community must not be merely an interlude. It must be a moment of transformation.  When the Spirit of God descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost, they were timid, lost and fearful.  But with the Spirit in their midst they transformed the whole of the world.

     We must do the same now.  The voices of young people coming together to demand substantive, structural change are an immense sign of hope. The African American community itself — speaking with a power and eloquence that are  penetrating our deafness and hardness of heart — is a sign of hope. The recognition that only a sustained and integrated effort to accomplish structural change and reform will suffice —these are signs of hope and the presence of the Spirit in the events of these days.

     We in the Catholic Community must seize upon this moment as transformative and enduring.  We must use our educational and formational programs to bring to our children the beauty of God’s gift of equality in creation. We must examine the ways in which we contribute to the suffering of African American workers and parents, students and elderly, the dispossessed and the hurting  by how we live and act and spend and vote.  We must move deliberately to support deep reforms in law enforcement so that true justice, protection and service lie at the heart of police cultures in our land.  And on this Trinity Sunday, we must not find in the Father, Son and Spirit merely a source of contentment and complacency, but also that we might find in the Trinity the God of urgency, of suffering, of solidarity and renewal who compels us to act.

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