Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.
When my parents left their hometown in central Indiana in 1966, theirs was the “German” parish, though about the only thing really German about it was the heritage of many of the parishioners. I never knew that parish—St. Joseph, a large, gray neo-Gothic edifice on Market Street downtown. My parents were married there a couple of years after my mother converted to Catholicism. Then they moved to California, where I was born. Decades later, in my thirties, I began to visit my extended family in Indiana more frequently. St. Joseph’s was now All Saints, a single combined parish for the entire town. Latin American and Southeast Asian immigrants had moved in to work at the pork-processing plant, and there was a Spanish Mass. By my last visit, a good number of the congregants even at the English Mass were Hispanic.
The town I grew up in lies in suburban Orange County, south of Los Angeles. As a child I rode my bike among the endless subdivisions, and almost everyone I encountered was white. By the late 1970s, however, refugees from Southeast Asia and other immigrants began settling in the area, and our parish offered a late-afternoon Vietnamese Mass, so remote from the rest of the life of the parish that we hardly knew it was there. In the mid-80s, I went off to college, and by the time I moved back to California decades later, my home parish had not only a Vietnamese Mass but a Spanish Mass as well. My mother found herself helping to organize a multilingual, multicultural Thanksgiving Day Mass.
In both cases, local demographic change had turned our hometown parishes into shared parishes, each with two or more distinct cultural, racial, or ethnic groups whose regular worship and ministries were separate, but who used the same parish facilities and were served by the same clergy leadership. Perhaps most Mass-going Catholics in the United States today have at least visited a shared parish on vacation. But at the same time, very little specific data about them has emerged. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found in 2013 that fewer than one-third of U.S. parishes had Mass in a language other than English (in four-fifths of those cases, the Mass was in Spanish). In 2014, Boston College’s National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry reported that just over half of the parishioners at parishes with Hispanic ministry were not Hispanic, and that on average half or more of the Masses at such parishes took place in a language other than Spanish. Over the past decade or so, my students and I have studied various dioceses around the United States and calculated the percentage of parishes with Mass in more than one language. Dioceses in “gateway” cities and states where immigrants have been arriving for decades showed a majority of parishes with multilingual Mass schedules—in the most immigrant-rich dioceses, it was usually a supermajority and as high as 75 percent (Los Angeles) or 81 percent (Miami). Across the Midwest and South, where demographic transformations began in earnest in the 1990s, the percentage lay somewhere between 15 and 45 percent.
Shared parishes were almost never the result of a pastoral plan but rather an ad hoc response to demographic change. They constitute a kind of “middle way” between parishes that simply refuse to accommodate newcomers (or will only do so if the newcomers adapt English-language Masses and Euro-American Catholic customs) and those parishes that, de jure or de facto, devote their entire communal life to a particular racial, ethnic, or language group. A few shared parishes remain breathtaking in their diversity, such as St. Camillus in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C., where Mass is held in English, French, and Spanish, and distinct ministries exist for Mexican, Central American, Francophone African, Haitian, Bangali, and African-American Catholics. Here in Los Angeles, I have personally visited and researched an inner-city African-American and Hispanic parish, a historically Mexican parish gentrified into multicultural affluence (but retaining a Spanish Mass), and a suburban parish with English-speaking Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and Spanish-speaking Mexican and Central American immigrants. The most common kind of shared parish, however, remains the combination of a Euro-American English-speaking community and a Spanish-speaking community of Latin American descent.