The topic for the day was “shared parishes” — that is, parishes in which two or more languages or cultural contexts are present. It’s undeniably of great importance in the Diocese of Camden and throughout the rest of the United States, as Hispanic Catholics continue to grow in number and influence.
Nonetheless, the real issue under discussion May 8 at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Sicklerville, was far more basic and far-reaching: the Gospel mandate of the church.
“Responding to diversity requires us to think as church,” said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, director of Hispanic Affairs for the U.S. bishops and guest speaker for the day. “Variety is a gift of God and an opportunity for evangelization.”
Dozens of parish representatives, from South Jersey and beyond, came to the parish to hear Aguilera-Titus give a presentation of “Best Practices for Shared Parishes.” It was an English language presentation, and a Spanish presentation was given the following day at the John Paul II Retreat House in Vineland.
While some parishes have been dealing with the issue for years, others are just starting to see more cultural diversity variety in their church pews. Sitting at the same table in Sicklerville were Father Joseph Luong T. Pham, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Atlantic City, and a representative of St. Joseph, a Camden parish started in 1892 specifically for Polish Catholics. While the Atlantic City parish has had a culturally diverse congregation for decades, St. Joseph still draws much of its membership from Polish Catholics, including a large number who have moved to the suburbs. It is seeking ways to welcome Hispanic Catholics who now live in the neighborhood.
Aguilera-Titus’ talk and the ensuing discussion and the ensuing discussion kept coming back to several main points:
— Diversifying parishes is part of the church’s evangelical mission.
— The pastor bears a great responsibility for parish outreach to newcomers.
— The process of becoming a shared parish can be long, difficult and include setbacks. (As one church leader said, “It ain’t easy.”)
— The goal should be integration. Newcomers should come to feel they are not only welcome but share “ownership” of the parish. “The church exists to evangelize, not Americanize,” Aguilera-Titus said.
The key word for Aguilera-Titus — and for Bishop Dennis Sullivan, who made closing comments in Sicklerville — is “relationship.”
Following the lead of the pastor, parish staff have to make the decision “to go out and be missionary,” Aguilera-Titus said. “Adding a Spanish Mass does not divide a parish — it is casting a wider net.”
The event was sponsored by the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of Camden.