Getting over ourselves
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Most often, a local church is neither in opposition to, nor swallowed up by, the larger society. Rather, it tends to reflect the prejudices and shortcomings as well as the strengths of the surrounding culture.
In the United States, Catholicism struggled for more than a century to win acceptance by the dominant, Protestant culture. This newspaper, in its early years, sought to defend Catholics - who were primarily immigrants - from the prejudices and anti-immigrant xenophobia of the wider society. In seeking respect, Catholics often tried to portray themselves as fully American, subsuming their Catholic identity.
The successful integration of U.S. Catholics into American society was popularly symbolized by the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic U.S. president. Scholars and social critics noted that this may have been the moment when Catholics began to lose their identity, becoming virtually indistinguishable from their fellow Americans in terms of behavior, politics, prejudices and beliefs.
It is not only our Catholic identity that was threatened by the success of our assimilation. As an immigrant church, Catholics in this country often had a strong sense of the wider church outside. Appreciation for the missions was common. This identification with the Catholics of other lands was a way of acknowledging the larger church to which we were connected.
But material and political success may have brought with it a greater provincialism. We tithe less than other faiths. We pay scant attention to the church in other parts of the world. We have almost completely lost our commitment to the missions. Evangelization has become just "church talk." Though we were an immigrant church, many of us rail at the immigrants. And though we no longer produce enough vocations, many of us grumble when our bishop sends us a priest from Africa or Asia because he has no one else to send.
Yet, these shepherds from far away shores are reminders to us of a greater church than what exists in our parish, or diocese or even nation. The billion Catholics in the world today are a vibrant testimony to the diversity of the church and the universal glory of our savior. For U.S. Catholics in particular, acknowledging that we are all parts of one body - African, Asian, Latin American, European, Eastern rite and Roman rite, immigrant and native born - is an absolutely critical awareness if we are not to be blinded by our own pride, power and wealth.
Many young Catholics already get this, in part because of the amazing phenomenon of World Youth Day. In 2008, it will be held in Australia, and this will be another tremendous opportunity for Catholics to join with their fellows from around the world.
Americans, bounded by two oceans and seemingly a world apart, have always tended toward isolationism. For Catholics such a temptation is to be resisted. We are many members, but one body. Perhaps the priest shortage and the influx of foreign-born priests, like the immigration crisis, are invitations for U.S. Catholics to get over ourselves and see what a Catholic world it truly is.
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