Pope Francis calls us to build bridges. Let’s start in our parishes.
Pope Francis is a pastor of the borders.
On Feb. 17, 2016, during his visit to Mexico, Francis prayed and laid flowers at a memorial for the thousands of migrants who have died trying to reach the United States. Its towering cross, built on a concrete platform overlooking the militarized international bridge between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Tex., was emblazoned with a silhouette of the holy family fleeing into Egypt.
Francis’ visit to the border was emblematic of the gravitational force at the heart of his pontificate: the constant pull toward the margins. Dwelling in silent prayer in a space charged with the memory of injustice and human suffering, Francis invited the whole church to dwell there too. He invited us, in other words, to make a preferential option for the borderlands. There we find the crucified and risen Christ whom we encounter.
But living as we do in a historical moment characterized by profound ideological polarization and wide-scale conflation of legal status with moral status, advocating for a theological and pastoral commitment to the borderlands is not easy. In our distorted national imagination, the specter of the border looms both as a dam, holding back oncoming tides of the undesired other, and as a frontier to be conquered: militarily, economically and culturally. Borderlands become checkpoints, endpoints, spaces of danger and suspicion beyond which we dare venture only as missionaries or tourists—never as equals, lest we, too, become undesirable. They are spaces from which, like Nazareth, we who are formed to fear them grow to believe that nothing good can ever come. Such formation renders empathy impossible. In this distorted national imagination, the architectural form proper to the border is not the bridge but rather the iron fence or the concrete wall.
Jesus’ own thoroughgoing marginality in the Gospels invites us to recognize borders as spaces where Christ is revealed in our midst, where the church is being stretched and reshaped.
Taught to fear our geographical borderlands, we imbibe in turn a fear of the borders that exist within our own communities—the spaces in our parishes, neighborhoods and schools where races, cultures and classes meet.
Such fear must be rejected. Jesus’ own thoroughgoing marginality in the Gospels invites us to recognize borders as spaces where Christ is revealed in our midst, where the church is being stretched and reshaped. Re-envisioning borders not as spaces where identities and relationships end but rather where they might begin to grow, we are better able to perceive in them the possibility of encounter, conversion and salvation. Solidarity across near and distant borders becomes a real possibility when we approach this joining not as a display of begrudging welcome but as a soteriological act: a desire for true communion with our neighbors.
The question Pope Francis implicitly poses to us, then, is: Where are the borders in our midst? Where are we being called to build bridges?
It is tempting to believe that missionary discipleship—the outward, centrifugal impulse toward loving encounter of which Francis and the Latin American bishops often speak—compels us to journey elsewhere. In the United States, our largely racially, culturally and economically segregated existences encourage the misconception that in order to encounter difference in consequential and challenging ways, we need to travel half a world away—as on a service trip. The notion that the place for solidarity is somewhere else is a deceptive one, because it risks absolving us of our responsibility to scrutinize the contours of our own local realities. I want to suggest that for Catholics, the work of solidarity across borders begins in that most local of communities: the parish.
The question Pope Francis implicitly poses to us is: Where are the borders in our midst? Where are we being called to build bridges?
New Forms of Parish Life
The church in the United States is in the midst of a profound transformation that is manifested vividly at the parish level. According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, more than one-third of Catholic parishes in the United States served significant numbers of parishioners from multiple cultural, ethnic or linguistic communities as of 2010. This trend is steadily increasing. While parishes have been sites of intense intercultural negotiation for as long as the church has been a presence in what is now the United States, the current moment is unique in key ways.
Today, Latino/a, African, African American, Asian and Native American Catholics are responsible for the continued vitality of the church in the United States. According to estimates by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than half of all U.S. Catholics today are not of Euro-American descent. Latinos alone comprise almost 40 percent of U.S. Catholics, and over half of Catholics under age 40. The center of gravity in the church is rapidly shifting to the Southeast and West, in no small part due to immigration.
Meanwhile, Catholics’ approaches to parish life are changing. Whereas a century ago new immigrants might have settled into territorial enclaves with national parishes, changes in canon law, social opinion and immigration itself have largely made the formal establishment of single-nationality parishes a vestige of the past. Today, the culturally shared parish is not a temporary arrangement but a unique and emerging model of parish life in its own right. Yet, as the theologian Brett Hoover notes, the coexistence of multiple cultural communities in a single parish often feels like an ad hoc arrangement, something that works for the time being (or does not) but also has an aura of impermanence.
Whereas a century ago new immigrants might have settled into territorial enclaves with national parishes, changes in canon law, social opinion and immigration itself have largely made the formal establishment of single-nationality parishes a vestige of the past.
Separation in Shared Space
Within many shared parishes, cultural subcommunities exist in separate spheres: They worship at different language-specific Masses, sing in different choirs, participate in separate ministries and generally orbit around one another, intersecting for brief moments in the parking lot or twice a year at a bilingual Mass. In other parishes, particularly those that have made intercultural collaboration and justice intrinsic to their missions, distinct cultural communities have developed a shared repertoire of prayers, practices and songs. Such communities recognize that crossing boundaries is a long game, an ongoing process accomplished not in one Mass or one year, but rather one that develops over decades.
Cultural separation in parishes is not intrinsically negative. Culturally particular communities are vital spaces of empowerment and kinship for their members. The problem arises when cultural distinction calcifies into unbreachable division. The parish ceases to be a community in any meaningful sense.
Separation is merely a symptom. The sin is our contentment with it. Indeed, in most shared parishes, asymmetrical power relationships among subcommunities and a lack of genuine cross-cultural relationships among members coincide with larger and typically unacknowledged structural forces of white normativity, racism and xenophobia to make taking the first step toward intercultural engagement uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.
Perhaps more than any other institution in daily life, parishes are places where we are invited into the challenging task of joining with and loving other people in their difference. This is not easy. It is very different from the benign suggestion that we “celebrate diversity,” which demands nothing more of us than vague tolerance of the existence of people who are not like ourselves. Solidarity in difference requires, in the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, a conversion to the other. For white Catholics, it requires a willingness to be challenged in our presumptions of normativity, a willingness to be the guest in the place where we are used to being the host.
The parish is traditionally defined as a stable community of the faithful. Today, it is clear that the parish is also a place of ambiguity, change, hybridity and contested identities. Our parishes are, in a real sense, the borderlands in our midst.
We do not join with one another to be politically correct or to celebrate diversity in some superficial way. We do so because we believe that salvation is communal, and ritual is the language of community.
Liturgy as Solidarity
Liturgy offers us resources for negotiating these ecclesial borderlands. Social scientists and theologians alike have long affirmed, in the words of the sociologist of religion R. Stephen Warner, “the crucial role of embodied ritual as a key to the capacity religion has to bridge boundaries, both between communities and individuals.” Parishes, as it turns out, are ritual-rich environments and thus offer us built-in resources for negotiating difference.
As is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever attended a bilingual Mass, the work of fostering intercultural community in parishes does not end with Masses like these. Indeed, bilingual liturgies can feel onerous and stilted, even where they are the norm. Liturgy is not a magic spell for harmony. It must be part of a comprehensive effort to enact justice at all levels of parish and diocesan life through intentional processes of listening and dialogue, careful analysis of power structures, opportunities for joyful fellowship beyond the liturgical space, and the formation and empowerment of lay and ordained leaders from within Latino/a, black, Asian and Native American communities.
Nevertheless, the significance of liturgy in this complex work should not be overlooked. Indeed, attempts at fostering community through inclusive liturgical participation draw out an instinct similar to those elaborated by scholars: We become community by doing community. The Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa’s twist on the classic verse by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado captures the spirit of this task: “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hacen puentes al andar.” (“There are no bridges; we make the bridges as we go.”)
Moved by the praxis of Pope Francis, might we enter into this complex work by approaching bilingual Masses not as grumbling inconveniences but as acts of liturgical solidarity? Classical understandings of ritual regarded its social function as consolidating group identity and performing a commonly held, cohesive set of beliefs and values. But scholars no longer view uniformity as either the prerequisite or the outcome of ritual. Rather, in contexts of profound diversity, shared participation in ritual can help to cultivate community-in-difference by inaugurating us into what Roberto Goizueta calls a vision of “life in the subjunctive.”
Ritual offers us a common, embodied script for living into the kind of community that we hope to become—the community we wish we were—in a way that reforms our relational imaginations. As we rise together, sing together (even imperfectly), sit shoulder to shoulder, exchange a kiss of peace, walk with each other, eat from a common vessel and drink from a common cup—and do it again and again—we slowly practice becoming what we receive in the Eucharist.
We do not join with one another to be politically correct or to celebrate diversity in some superficial way. We do so because we believe that salvation is communal, and ritual is the language of community. Solidarity is an expression of our peoplehood, the fullness of that communion, united across near and distant borders as the body of Christ.