Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Visit's Hopes: Funds for the Filipinos, Zeal for the Americans

Just in case anyone hasn't realized it yet, American Catholicism's changing, folks -- and the ground is, literally, shifting right beneath our feet.

At least, that proved to be the case for me a few months back.

As winter bore down on the East, I slipped into a Sunday evening Mass at a neighborhood parish in Queens. The English liturgy began in its upper church at 5.30. At the same time, one in Tagalog was getting underway downstairs.

The Anglo Mass was what, unfortunately, passes as the norm these days: the sparse crowd, ho-hum, "get me outta here" kinda deal. But in the lower church, its counterpart for the local Filipino community began with no less than 20 minutes of singing, during which their roof (our ground) was actually... vibrating.

By the time the opening hymn was done downstairs, we were midway through the Creed. Maybe -- just maybe -- they were preparing for the Gospel as the English-speaking celebrant was out the door.

I desperately wanted to pop in, but had to catch a train... and would've felt terribly guilty for leaving.

Moral of the story: sure, US Catholicism's Anglo contingent remains its dominant ethnic group (at least, as of this writing). But just as with the Hispanic core which will soon overtake the old immigration in numbers, the energy, the future -- and, it must be said, the hope -- of the enterprise on these shores is taking its lead on a massive scale from the increasingly-emergent Asian communities, especially those of Vietnamese and Filipino heritage, marked by firm cohesion, joyful spirit, and a spirit of devotion and love for their faith as strong as summer's first day is long.

It's not just catholicity at work -- it's what's happening right in our midst. And we better start paying attention.

To offer but a handful of examples: though Asian-Americans comprise but 3% of the nation's 70 million Catholics, the community pulled nearly four times its weight in its number of the US' priestly ordinands this year; with 11% of the candidates of Asian-Pacific birth, the group was tied with Mexico at the second-largest provider of the country's priesthood class for the year. The Filipino custom of the Simbang Gabi -- the annual pre-Christmas novena traditionally held before the break of dawn for the nine days -- has come to equal "packed-to-the-rafters" congregations in the places where it's held (including, as of SG'06, 114 of the archdiocese of Los Angeles' 280-odd parishes); same goes for the numerable places that hold weekly devotions to the Niño de Cebu, the Black Nazarene, or the other patrons of the islands. And for all the ink and Klieg lights that focus on the 10,000 of all ethnicities who show up for the annual Roe Eve Mass for Life in Washington and the 40,000 gone to Disneyland for LA's Religious Education Congress, the States' largest Catholic gathering is actually "Marian Days," when no fewer than 70,000 -- repeat: 70,000 -- Vietnamese-American Catholics converge on Carthage, Missouri for three days in August. (The event celebrates its 30th anniversary this year from August 2-5.)

As much of the church's complacent, polarized (and, coincidentally, Anglo-dominated) chattering circles devote themselves to advancing a face of Catholicism more akin to the World Wrestling Federation than anything worthily resembling the universal Body of Christ, the faith's dynamism and most faithful integration into the lives of its own lies far (far) away from the journals and comboxes. It's a welcome reminder of the church's universality, the need to be mindful of -- and open to -- the many cultures in which it operates, and the lessons the rest of the whole can learn from each.

In that light, the US church has had no small number of opportunities to highlight its vanguard in recent months. Following quickly on the heels of the month-long North American swing of Cardinal Joseph Zen SDB of Hong Kong -- during which, it's emerged, the Vatican intermediary on things Chinese met with President Bush -- the Bay Area's Filipino community welcomed Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila this week, as the heir of Sin began a weeklong jaunt to the States.

After spending time with his family's California branch and three Masses in and around San Francisco, Rosales heads today to Washington, where he'll lead the tomorrow's Filipino pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception -- estimated attendance: 2,500 -- then stick around for more time with the capital's diaspora, from whose embrace he departs for Chicago.

As the bishops of Asia's most predominately Christian nation continue to burnish the national church's reputation as the nation's singular defender of the poor and most outspoken critic of political corruption, a key element of Rosales' American visit is slated to be his "Pondo Ng Pinoy" ("Funds for the Filipino") initiative -- which, he once reported, was Benedict XVI's catalyst to dwell on charity his first encyclical, Deus caritas est.

Starting with contributions of 25 centavos (barely 1¢US), the initiative has since raised 72 million pesos (US$1.5 million) toward new initiatives on education, health care, etc. that, according to the cardinal, "will directly help the poor live with [the] dignity that is their birth right as children of God."

A nation's development begins with the poorest of its poor, Rosales told his flock in launching the initiative three years ago this week. In carrying out the work, he said that "love will be the motivation we have (and) compassion is the only influence we will use.

"You and I will be surprised at what the love of God will do in us and among us."

It wasn't all that long ago when, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the bishops of the Philippines were drawn from the victorious combatant, who brought their home church's penchants for organization and administration... along with the lyrics to "Long Live the Pope."

Irony of ironies, though, little more than a century later, the colonial arrangements long consigned to history, a native cardinal's reverse trip to these shores brings a reminder of the thing it needs most -- a gift of faith manifested not in buildings or dollars, but the contagious sound of that praise and joy which, in a day, yields more good fruit than two millennia of battle-drunk hair-splitting could ever find the courage to muster.