Diversity in Parishes

Thinking about Tim Brunk’s post in light of Charlottesville in conjunction with my reading and conversations over the past weeks and months have led to some questions about diversity. Maybe you have some thoughts, responses, or insights to share in the comments.

Recently, I’ve been reading Tricia Colleen Bruce’s interesting sociological study of personal parishes, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church (Oxford 2017). According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “personal parishes” are non-territorial parishes established by a bishop for a particular group based on “the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory, or even for some other reason” (Canon 518). After the establishment of many such “national parishes” to support European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries (I grew up in one such Italian parish), personal parishes were heavily discouraged in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Several American prelates, including Cardinals Mundelein and Spellman, argued for the territorial parish (and against national parishes) as an instrument supporting Americanization of Catholics (Bruce 19). The idea being that the less Catholics were insulated by their cultural and linguistic “old world” ways, the more they would be integrated into U.S. culture and climb the ladder of success and influence. The stated goal of assimilation, however, ironically led away from the national parish structure that had gradually helped immigrant Catholics to gain a foothold in the U.S.

In the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law includes a kind  of ressourcement of personal parishes, which it acknowledges as the exception to the territorial-parish norm, but nevertheless a viable option when “expedient.”

Bruce argues that an ongoing increase of personal parishes, alongside the territorial parish structure, in the U.S. since 1983 represents a complex way of dealing unity and diversity in American Catholicism. One critique of the personal parish  is that it adopts a congregational model of gathering for worship. That is, the personal parish represents a gathering of the like-minded in a voluntary way, rather than worshipping with whomever happens to end up within the parish boundaries. However, “Personal parishes,” Bruce emphasizes, “do not mimic congregations” because they are prescribed by the bishop. In the dynamic of lay desire and official sanction, they “embed choice in a way that goes beyond a tacit acceptance of individuals’ autonomy” (198).

13% of the personal parishes that have been established in the U.S. between 1983 and 2012 are related to the celebration of the extraordinary form, a specific option mentioned in Summorum Pontificum , art. 10. The much more interesting question, I think, relates to racial and ethnic minority groups. Bruce’s numbers do not include the last five years, but excluding those, 76% of personal parishes established since 1983 are related to ethnicity or race (40).

Nevertheless, not every case of racial or ethnic homogeny is one of reticence or exclusion.

Bruce raises some interesting points about racial and ethnic diversity. She suggests that diversity in a parish cannot be simply embraced for its own sake. “Sheer internal diversity does not ensure an equal distribution of voice and power (especially for minority groups), nor ownership and empowerment for those already marginalized. Color-blind rhetoric and diversity talk in a world of ‘racism without racists’ can conveniently blind Americans to the realities of difference, but does not erase the realities of difference (199).” She goes on to emphasize that parish diversity typically requires the comfort of the dominant party, or it falls apart. This gives rise to a variety of resentments, which bubble under the “cosmopolitan canopy,” Elijah Anderson’s term for the interracial civility that tends to exist in urban settings. In such a situation, personal parishes that support a given minority can be very helpful toward the development of the faith.

Returning to the important questions raised in Tim Brunk’s post about segregation in churches and racism, the liturgical and extra-liturgical practices in the parish are an important locus of the church’s engagement with racism. However, it’s not always clear how those practices speak and form us. Undoubtedly, the same thing could be said about singing certain hymns that Bruce says about parish diversity: it tends to require the comfort of the dominant party. If that’s the case, then apart from the thorny issues of cultural appropriation, I wonder is there potential for transformation embedded in singing Spirituals or Spanish language hymns? Perhaps.

But it’s also too easy to develop a thin veneer of cultural and racial acceptance or, worse, a sense of having transcended the racism the continues to plague us. This is not the kind of transcendence our liturgies aim to meet us with. As there is empty cosmopolitan gestures, so there are empty appeals to Galatians 3:28 and the body of Christ, as if the kingdom has already arrived in its fullness and the body is not broken. Dr. Arthur Falls, a medical doctor and Catholic Worker who lived during the push for civil rights legislation, characterized white Catholic thinking that racism was no big deal or already overcome in the church, appeals to the “mythical body of Christ.”

As one who has been a tireless supporter of territorial parishes precisely because they are a check against the relentless American apotheosis of choice, I’ve come to see over the decade or so that they are a function of a more basic choice (or not) of where to live. With the cultural heritage of subtle racist practices such as redlining and white flight, the territorial parish simply fails as a check against our insidious practices of exclusion.

Bruce makes a compelling argument that it’s precisely the interplay of choice (requests from Catholic groups on the ground) and authority (the assent of the bishop) that makes the response of personal parishes more than assimilation to American voluntarism. They represent “a novel organizational form, re-centering otherwise de-centered people and purposes. Personal parishes create a structural alternative to conformity, a named specialist organization alongside the generalist organization” (201). But they are not a panacea, as she notes. And sometimes they can be problematic, depending on the circumstances.

Liturgically, I wonder if we’re brought back to the questions around inculturation. There’s something profound about the depth of liturgical expression that comes from the cultural inheritance of a people. And celebrating a liturgy marked by at least an aspect of different cultural inheritance can be an important reminder of unity in diversity. But I wonder: does there need to be a population at the parish to serve as custodians of that music, for example? Or is that too limiting? A parish I formerly attended had a sizable Rawandan population. When Rawandan music was integrated into the liturgy, the Rawandan parishioners, as a choir, led us in the singing. It didn’t erase tensions, but it did accomplish significant levels of understanding.

The national language, English in this case, does not get at the cultural inheritance in the U.S., which is far more diverse. Other languages have always been a part of the American Catholic experience.

Spirituals are a particularly compelling example of musical diversity because they emerged on our soil, unlike so many European hymns that many of us are used to. But the appeals they make are so deeply embedded in the African-American experience, it seems fair to wonder how they can be sung without appropriation, especially when the concupiscence that follows America’s original sin is still so pervasive.

So how do we deeply inculturate the liturgy–an essential task of catholicity–while continuing the task of breaking down barriers and walls, of encountering those who are different? Perhaps personal parishes are an important element of growing into the full expression of Galatians 3:27-28, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” 


  1. “parish diversity typically requires the comfort of the dominant party”

    In the particular case of spiritual singing: as I responded to Timothy Brunk’s post – relying on only this one musical expression as representative of an entire ethnic group is another facet of limitation, and – by virtue of their comprehension relying on at least a knowledge of (if not acceptance of) the slave culture that produced them – can actually end up being counter-productive. We don’t limit white congregations to their ethnic songs or hymnody from the 18th-19th centuries.

  2. FWIW, my experience of suburban territorial Catholic parishes in the Northeast USA is that they often have a double-bulged demographic: (i) retirees/empty-nesters, and (ii) families with children on sacramental track, as it were (both groups might be thought have more logistical resistance to travelling too far for worship). Anyone not in those categories is scarcer on the ground and either not active or choosing to go to other parishes/oratories that offer liturgical praxis and community more sympathetic to their spiritual needs as they discern them.

    I participated in Mass at my territorial parish last evening for logistical reasons, as must be the case on most holydays of obligation (I also receive Reconciliation at my territorial parish; my parish of choice is useless for me for it, unfortunately), but most Sunday mornings I drive almost a half hour to get parking an hour in advance for Mass at my elective parish in Boston (the holyday Mass schedule of which for me is also logistically useless except on public holidays like Christmas or New Years Day).

    For many years, I did this with a parish in Cambridge, and before that, for many years at an oratory in Boston. The last time I regularly participated in a territorial parish in which I was resident was 1990 in Cambridge, but when I moved further out to the ‘burbs, the aforementioned double-bulge was evident at that time, only intensified by the Long Lent of 2002 and the demographic Dunkirk of Catholicism that followed in Boston.

    It’s a lot of bother on my part, but the alternative is not tenable for me (and I am hardly alone in this regard, based on what I’ve seen); I am already at the edge of my community tether. I spent decades in ministries doing many things that were Definitely Not My Preferred Taste, but while I don’t demand everything be done to my preferred taste, at this stage of my life I choose fewer wanton irritants/obstacles. Throwing in bit of this or that to make the community seem like it is open and welcoming is thin gruel for anyone actually seeking a community in which they will be demographically marginal; in my experience, that’s more for assuaging the dominant community’s sense of self than for the genuine benefit of the erstwhile recipients of its tolerance.

  3. Sorry, my experience covers two aspects of this discussion:
    a) territorial parish which is probably 50-50 Hispanic-White. Unfortunately, parish pastor (if not Spanish speaking) leads to making the Hispanic parishioners second class citizens. We basically have two separate parishes sharing one church building. Leadership is split with Hispanics having token committees, etc. Liturgy in Spanish is reserved to one Sunday celebration. There are very few attempts to combine or integrate even for major feasts. Thus, major feasts have one Hispanic liturgy and if there is only one liturgy (e.g. Holy Thursday), then one reading is in Spanish and one song is in Spanish. (some of this reflects the lack of interest, skills, or ability of parish liturgy/music folks to even attempt integration along with current pastor). This results in two parishes – white (in power and control) and second class citizens (Hispanic). Interestingly, the catholic school has kids who speak eleven different languages and is more than 50% Hispanic. The younger generation will eventually change this above dynamic – so demographics create change vs. any planned decisions or action plans….not my idea of community based on catholic social justice
    b) Dallas Diocese has basically chosen to set up territorial parishes based upon current and historical neighborhoods, suburbs. If you don’t know it already, Dallas (like many major US cities) is one of the most segregated cities in the US and has the highest rate of inequality. So, Dallas is split in half – southern section is overwhelmingly poor, black; western section is overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic, and then you have north Dallas – middle or above middle class and white. Not sure that the dioceses handles or addresses this racist and inequal situation any better than current politicians and city government. In fact, city/county government is feverishly trying to address these issues while the diocese merely handles the territorial (service station parish model) while doing almost nothing else to address ethnic/racial divisions. So, the personal parish would only exacerbate this problem – how is that gospel directed?
    There are models in the US and in some dioceses where diversity in parishes and liturgy works – realize the built in resistance, cultural differences and comfort levels, but to just ignore or, worse, enable by justifying separateness appears to me to only go down the road of US individualism but on a parish wide level – highest value is my free choice. Not exactly the common good.

    1. Does the Diocese of Dallas assess a cathedraticum (or equivalent) on its parishes whereby wealthier parishes at least notionally participate in the support of less wealthy parishes?

      On a very different note, it’s amazing to me how Catholic dioceses in the USA don’t have electronically published maps of parish boundaries. It’s not like they don’t have the information. It’s just that it seems to be jealously guarded information – which is never changed unless and until parish creation or consolidation comes into view, which makes no sense to me, given demographic changes. I would think they should be systematically evaluated at least every 25 years (for each ordinary Jubilee, for example).

      1. I know of one diocese that only realized it had lost the map for the geographic boundaries of parishes in a town until there was need for consolidation. And since they were changing the boundaries anyway, no harm no foul.

    2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill. The Dallas situation is the kind of thing I was thinking about when I mentioned redlining. I don’t know the specific factors that made Dallas what it is, but many, many cities are segregated due to intentionally racist practices.

      In this case, the territorial parishes are not integrating, they simply reinforce the prior choice of where to live (in the north) and, presumably, the limits on that choice (south and west).

      To your last point about individualism and free choice as the highest value, this was generally my position about five years ago. I still think that various checks against American voluntarism are important. Though, I’m not sure that the territorial parish is actually one of those checks functionally. Theoretically, it certainly is.

      But I also find Bruce’s argument that personal parishes are not mere choice, a compelling one. Her point is that, with episcopal approval required, they are not simply choice as the highest value.

      It’s interesting to think about the proposal of a personal parish that would serve a deliberately selective group of Catholics who want to cross those boundaries. Of course, such a group would have to exist to make the proposal!

      1. “In this case, the territorial parishes are not integrating, they simply reinforce the prior choice of where to live (in the north) and, presumably, the limits on that choice (south and west).”

        As a formal practice, redlining was made illegal back in the 1970s – two generations ago. The cultural, ethnic and racial “boundaries” in our cities and suburbs (and elsewhere) have continued to shift and evolve since then, but our parish boundaries mostly have stayed static. In my area, Chicago, there are families of Irish or Polish extraction who have maintained some sort of a foothold in the old ethnic neighborhood parish, but, thanks in part to the wonders of parochial education, have gone off to college and “graduated” to the suburbs after a generation or two. They go to their suburban parish church each week for Sunday mass but may go back to the old neighborhood, where Grandma and Grandpa may still live and where the masses are now offered in Spanish, for family weddings or baptisms.

        I agree with you that, almost by definition, where a person chooses to live determines what territorial parish s/he will join, but those decisions aren’t made purely by racial or ethnic identity or preference. I happen to spend a fair amount of time in the northern Dallas area on business, and my suggestion would be: check out the home prices. Financial considerations are much more a practical constraint than any other demographic in “choosing” whether or not to live in that upscale area; in fact, for most people, it’s really not an option at all.

      2. Absolutely right, Jim. They’re economic. Hence, we don’t get economic diversity in the territorial parish. But, of course, the effects of redlining are also economic. And, right, the practice was officially outlawed in 1968, but surely that has not stopped it. Further, its effects are still with us. I’m thinking of examples like this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/28/evidence-that-banks-still-deny-black-borrowers-just-as-they-did-50-years-ago/

        and this:

  4. I belong to a personal parish that was established for completely different reason. Not ethnic, not linguistic, not university students, not extraordinary form.

    Rather, it’s for pastoral care for people who “frequent the downtown area” of our city. Realizing that many homeless people move around without any home (so where’s their parish boundary?); many workers commute in and out, but live in some other parish boundary; many travelers and tourists pass through on the way to cruise ships, conventions; etc., it was a way to set apart a parish that serves needs of people who are members of other territorial parishes, or are without a parish home, because of living on the streets.

  5. No, the diocese of Dallas does not have any system in place for *richer* parishes to support others. Prior bishop had a voluntary system that pushed parishes in the north to *adopt* west/south parishes – twinning- and give support. In our north parish, this meant supporting the west parish’s once a year parish fair and a collection.
    Currently, our very diverse, inner city catholic school has repeatedly asked prior and now new bishop to provide some type of diocesan support – even scholarships to NO AVAIL. The parish for more than 25 years has been supporting this school to the tune of $400-$500,000 annually which, as you can imagine, means that many parish programs, initiatives, etc. are cut or eliminated to support a school which, until this year, had less than 100 students. A very expensive school ministry.

  6. I wonder if we need to distinguish between multilingual diversity and other types of diversity, such as racial? Black Americans and white Americans may not have worshiped together in Dr. King’s day, and probably not very much in our day either, but they do share a common language, which makes the possibility of common worship imaginable. But as soon as worship is offered in a language that is not understood by the disciple, it fails as worship, or so it seems to me.

    Bill deHaas’ anecdote of two de facto parishes who happen to share the same building is, in my observation, the usual state of affairs in bilingual parish communities. I am wondering if we can just conclude that common worship among two or more vernacular languages fails. We don’t have multilingual classrooms or workplaces, why would we think it’s a good idea for worship? Let’s acknowledge that language is a unifying principle for any worshiping community. If that requires separate worship services for separate native language speakers, so be it. As immigrants and refugees become more fluent and comfortable with their adopted home’s language (and music, and culture, and …) they will then naturally become more comfortable worshiping with the dominant culture.

    I really am not certain of the wisdom of trying to leverage worship to break down cultural or linguistic barriers. The word “leverage” signifies that we’re doing something other than worship – we’re instrumentalizing worship to achieve some end (no matter how noble) other than the praise of God and the sanctification of the faithful. The barriers do need to be broken down, but that is work to be done out in the world by lay disciples, who go out into that world enlightened by God’s word and strengthened by sacrament. If the barriers can be broken down in the classroom and the workplace, the worship will naturally follow. Maybe.

    1. “Bill deHaas’ anecdote of two de facto parishes who happen to share the same building is, in my observation, the usual state of affairs in bilingual parish communities.”

      Actually, I believe it’s more accurate to think of our larger parishes as buildings that are shared by several communities – the Saturday afternoon (or, much more rarely (typically for a different vernacular community) evening) Mass community, the early Sunday morning Mass community, the Sunday mid-morning “family/parish Mass” community, the late Sunday morning or Sunday evening Mass community….while there is some overlap for scheduling reasons, and while people involved in a parish school or apostolates may interact outside of Mass, many parishioners do not necessarily – at least as parishioners!

  7. Tim – whatever the residual effects and persistence of the old practice of redlining, the fact is that racial and other communal demographic housing patterns do change over time, while parish boundaries tend to remain static. I’d guess that all of us who have lived in urban areas can point to neighborhoods that have changed, whether that means new racial or ethnic groups displacing old ones, or gentrification, or some other type of demographic change. As a result of these changes, the demographic character of a parish can change pretty dramatically in the space of a few decades.

    I see it in my own parish, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. US Census data bears out what I’ve personally observed: this local community is gradually becoming less lily-white, as more people of Asian and Pacific background, as well as Hispanic heritage, move into the area. Honestly, I don’t think the lending practices of mortgage banks have anything to do with it – and that’s good news, of course.

    In my local community, the demographic change also is intergenerational: the white “silent generation” and boomer families that built up this area are aging and selling their homes to young families who are significantly more racially diverse. This intergenerational difference is easily observed in the communion lines at our parish on Sunday mornings.

    But these newer parishioners haven’t taken ownership of the parish to any significant extent yet. This was easily observable at some parish town hall meetings a couple of years ago. I looked around the room to gauge this very factor, and was dismayed that nearly every attendee was white and older.

    What isn’t clear to me is that our worship should somehow change or adapt to these changing demographics.

    1. Many thanks, Jim. Of course, you’re right that the composition of immigrant neighborhoods has changed, and continues to change, while territorial parish boundaries remain. I wonder if there is a connection between the final two paragraphs of your comment. I really don’t know.

      But it also strikes me that petitioning for a personal parish requires quite a bit of motivation and organization! When we talk generationally about parishes, there are so many factors in addition to ethnicity, including the “bowling alone” phenomenon that commitment and involvement in various mediating institutions is on the wane; parenting patterns; communication patterns.

      Nevertheless, I don’t think that we should let ourselves off the hook in interrogating the extent to which some parishes can work like “white spaces” (http://sociology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/pages_from_sre-11_rev5_printer_files.pdf)

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