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Immigration and Assimilation

American Catholics, long thought of as a church of immigrants, continue to see their numbers augmented by an influx of new Americans. Dealing successfully with this new population will be a major challenge for the church in the new century. If history is any guide, we will probably do rather well, maybe even better than in the past, since we have had a good deal of experience with immigration and assimilation. The church in Great Britain, which has welcomed immigrants from Ireland for centuries, is now faced with a different challenge as Catholics from the European continent arrive in great numbers. Since May 2004, nearly 2 million people have left Poland because of an unemployment rate of 18 percent and lack of opportunities. Half of them now live in Britain and Ireland.

The Catholic bishops in England and Wales hope to see a gradual assimilation of these immigrants into British Catholic life. Bishop Crispin Hollis of Portsmouth said that the church has to be universal and inclusive, and must also be willing to change in the new circumstances. Bishop Ryszard Karpinski, the Polish bishops’ delegate for emigrants, has asked that emigrants to Britain not come under pressure to attend English-language Masses. Bishop Hollis remarked that the Vatican tends to talk about preserving national identity, which isn’t appropriate in the modern world.


In fact, there should be no conflict. It is possible to achieve gradual assimilation and at the same time preserve national identity. Admittedly, it may now be and may have been easier to do this in the United States, where virtually every Catholic can look back to immigrant ancestors. One thinks of St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Columbus Day. But the richness and vitality newcomers bring to any church make the effort worthwhile.

Russia’s Bad Record

Human rights abuses in Russia are rising, according to a recent report by the advocacy organization Human Rights First. The rise in abuses was emphasized at a conference in Moscow in July attended by 11 independent human rights organizations. It was timed to take place shortly before the G-8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg. A wide variety of rights abuses were detailed, but one of the most worrisome for rights advocates concerns a new law aimed at limiting the freedom of nongovernmental organizations. It is feared that the legislation will make it easier for the government to conceal human rights violations by putting negative pressure on N.G.O.’s.

Early this year, for example, government television showed a documentary that falsely accused four respected rights organizations of accepting funds from a British secret service agency. Similarly, escalating government pressure has been focused on the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a group that has decried rights violations in Chechnya. Because of their work, R.C.F.S. members have been beaten and several of them killed. Last year, the government escalated its attacks on the group by filing charges against its director. The executive director of Human Rights First, Maureen Byrnes, said that the G-8 leaders should have taken the opportunity of their presence in St. Petersburg to call on President Putin to lift restrictions on independent N.G.O.’s in Russia. Given Russia’s repressive climate, however, achieving the goal of lessening those restrictionsthough laudablemay lie far in the future.

Competing Visions

It probably shocked many Catholics to learn that the bishop whose diocese includes the town of Medjugorje had directed the six visionaries to cease their claims concerning the Marian apparitions that supposedly occurred there. Ratko Peric, bishop of Mostar-Duvno, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said that the church has not accepted, either as supernatural or Marian, any of the apparitions, reports of which began in 1981. It was the latest in a series of conflicts between local bishops and Franciscans in the area, who have fostered devotion to Our Lady of Medjugorje. The next week Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo appointed a commission to review the apparitions.

Lack of approval from local bishops has not prevented millions of pilgrims from flocking to the small town, meeting with the visionaries, circulating reports of miracles and meditating on the messages transmitted by the visionaries. Mary has reportedly called for greater faith, penance, prayer, fasting and personal conversion. In 1986 Pope John Paul II approved travel to the town, even while the bishop, Pavao Zanic, dismissed the apparitions as mass hallucination.

The church has recognized only a few Marian apparitions as genuine (among them Lourdes and Fatima) and wisely counsels caution about personal revelations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that while personal revelations neither add to Christ’s definitive revelation, nor belong to the deposit of the faith, they help people lead faith-filled lives. Whatever is authentic, says the catechism, will be discerned by the church’s magisterium and the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful. In Medjugorje, however, it remains to be seen which of the faithful will have the last word.

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