Ethnic Parishes, Catholic Schools and the Vocations Crisis

I am not terribly accustomed to attending bilingual masses. I’ve avoided them rather religiously (sorry) ever since my wife and I went to a Spanish-English mass on Ash Wednesday when she was very pregnant. After well over an hour and a half of hearing each part of the mass said in one language, then repeated in the other, we ended up leaving (at Communion) out of fear that she would either faint or have the baby right there. It appears, from my recent experience, that at least some parishes are trying to shorten these sessions by having the mass split up into Spanish and English segments. This is helpful in that it allows both Spanish and English speakers to be equally confused about what exactly is going on. It’s rather like a government program that way, and so well in keeping with contemporary norms. I’m sure there are a few people (such as my wife, whose mother hailed from Mexico) who can follow it all—just not many.

I wouldn’t want to come across as too terribly hostile toward these “nonlingual” masses. There are much worse things going on in many of our churches, and at least the motivation, here, is not a bad one. One problem is that the honorable goal—to provide greater religious outreach to and incentive for integrating Hispanics into our parishes—isn’t very well served by once-per-month half-understood masses.  Another flaw to the bilingual mass movement is that the bilingual part addresses symptoms rather than the core problem, or rather set of problems.

To say that the Catholic, Universal Church is multicultural is to say something not merely obvious, but redundant. And cultural differences necessarily create distance and the potential for misunderstanding. Since the hierarchy gave up on our actual, universal language (you may have heard of Latin?) the cultural tensions have even entered the liturgy. Anyone who has been to a World Youth Day or similar celebration has experienced the difficulty one can have maintaining the proper attitude (and level of attention) for a mass including parts spoken in 6 or 7 languages.

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Many countries have little problem with such linguistic or related cultural issues because one language and culture predominates. This has never been the case for American Catholics, of course. And some have seen it as a persistent problem for the Church in the United States—what with the ethnic conflicts and rivalry it spawned. But the multi-ethnic character of the Church in America was always a key strength, spawning a generally beneficial rivalry in which local parishes sought to “outdo” one another in liturgical art, architecture, and a variety of religious and social activities that enriched our communities.

The central “Catholic” problem affecting many of our ethnic communities today is that they are underserved in terms of their own priests. In the past ethnic groups, be they Irish, Polish, Italian, German, or numerous other ethnic groups, would have their own parishes, with their own priests who spoke their own languages. In our “vernacular world,” one would think such ethnic solidarity would be all the more important. And it is. But this importance is not recognized, or at least not addressed with sufficient vigor.

Reasons for this are, themselves, varied. To begin with, of course, our country has a horrible, self-contradicting immigration policy, which encourages people to come here illegally, to be kept in second class citizenship. The result is uncounted, sometimes hidden Catholics, who fear and are feared by more mainstream, and especially Anglo-Catholic culture. Sadly, decade after decade, the only “solution” offered is more of the same, with debate focused on the illegal-to-citizen track. What we need, instead, is a genuine discussion of what is required for the common good of our country, including in terms of how much and what kind of immigration from Latin America (and elsewhere) we can and should allow, support, and legally regularize.

In addition, of course, Hispanic immigrants are tragically underserved in many parts of the United States. There is nothing wrong, and much right, about parishes today continuing the tradition of ethnic identification that goes so far back in the United States. Hispanic parishes, indeed sometimes more specifically Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, and non-Hispanic ethnic parishes, should have their own churches, priests, and masses wherever possible. Such strong, vibrant communities of common worship would only help the Church as a whole. The confidence that comes from being part of a fully developed and recognized parish with its own traditions would promote integration of the real, dignified sort. Cultural dialogue then can take place among equals rather than, as too often is the case, out of a patronizing desire to “include” those who should have their own place.

To address such problems, however, requires both better public policy and better outreach. That means seeing that Hispanics and other immigrants have a proper, legally-sanctioned place in our communities to begin with. It also means doing more to develop, nurture, and recruit priests, whether in the U.S. or in the countries from which our immigrants are coming, who can be fully part of their religious and cultural life.

Why isn’t this happening? For the usual reasons good things don’t happen in Catholic life: first, distorted priorities, and second, largely as a result of the first, lack of vocations. Our diocese continue to eliminate “nonproductive” (that is, small) parishes to save money and better use what few priests we have. As with most “charitable” cost savings, the policy is penny-wise and pound-foolish. This is particularly true when one recognizes the tremendous damage being done by the lack of support for Catholic schooling; a lack of support that has been at the heart of declining vocations for several decades.

I am lucky enough to live in an area where Catholic schools are taken fairly seriously, including through many scholarships for families that cannot afford the sky-high tuition rates that go with paying fully for private schooling. But all too many parishes and diocese have kept their schools open only for the few who can afford them, or eliminated their Catholic schools altogether. All while allowing the schools that are left to lose much of their Catholic character.

We need more, smaller parishes with more priests committed to serving their particular communities, and especially communities with whom they share deep cultural and linguistic ties. This no doubt sounds like pure fantasy, given the current condition of so many parishes and diocese. But the starting point is as clear as it is undervalued: increase support for, and the faithfulness of, our Catholic schools. This is crucial to the development of faithful adult Catholics. It is central to the development of vocations. And it is essential for the maintenance of a real Catholic presence and the health of the Church as a community of communities in our increasingly atomized, secular culture.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 3, 2014 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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