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Multiculturalism in the Church today


Recently 12 young people were commissioned as new altar servers in the Salisbury parish, bringing their total number to 26 servers, mostly from India, Vietnam, Philippines, and African countries.

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Very few have Caucasian backgrounds. All of them are to be congratulated for their loving service in the Church along with the many more dedicated altar servers across the diocese. Of particular note in this photo is that the priest (Fr Santosh Pereira from the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales, in India), is one of our many priests from a range of countries serving in our diocese.

In present day multicultural Australia, with significant migration from India, countries in Asia, and in Africa, we appear to be witnessing the early stages of a cultural shift in the Church in Australia, moving from a European Anglo/Celtic centric focus, to blend more with Indo-Asian and cultures from some African countries.

The implications of this emerging cultural shift are yet to be fully addressed in the Church, and will require innovative pastoral and strategic planning. However, we are already witnessing much multicultural richness in Australia and the Church as this cultural shift unfolds.

The experience of multiculturalism throughout the world is quite varied. In Australia it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience and it continues to strengthen Australia in its values such as giving people a FAIR GO, and of being FAIR DINKUM!

At times, we still see the ugliness of racism, but it appears to be much less tolerated by the general population in Australia, than many decades ago. Yet, there are signs of what might be called ‘passive racism’ where some people, perhaps unconsciously, assume that a person who is from Africa or India or other parts of Asia knows less and is treated in a condescending and paternalistic manner.

Perhaps more than anything else, if multiculturalism in Australia and in the Church is to prosper, we need to remember that all cultures change and adapt over time. Migrants should not be seen as needing to automatically assimilate into the history of a dominant Anglo/Celtic culture as if this initial hosting culture is not open to movement and growth.

People and their cultures seem to do much better together when they can mix and blend, adapt and grow together, while preserving different languages, cultural practices and food types that are often incorporated, to some degree, into the broader hosting culture. The delicate balance needed in the work of multiculturalism and the ongoing development of a harmonious but diverse community will require these cultural interplays to occur within an overall commitment to accept and live out common values that have built, and continue to build, our nation.

Priests from Indo-Asia and countries in Africa are a vital presence in the Archdiocese of Adelaide both in leading and ministering in a large number of our parish communities and through their cultural connection and pastoral care to the new wave of migrants and refugees spread throughout the diocese.

Cultures will influence each other and the Australian culture will be enhanced. And while there might be a small amount of pushback against the presence of international priests, I think this pushback is not so much about cultural concerns but more about a theological concern for some people.

In the era of the Church’s new understanding of the importance of lay ministry, the presence of priests from other countries can be seen by some as a blunting of the important movement of increased lay leadership in parishes.

It will be important for the upcoming Plenary Council of the Catholic Church to ensure that any discussion about the presence of international clergy in the Church in Australia, and the vital importance of lay participation in collaborative parish ministry, does not produce polarity and divergence. We need healthy dialogue, mutual respect and a ‘walking together’ of different trends, different theologies and the accommodation of a wide range of views of Church and community.

As secularism takes a firm hold in Australian culture, with the trend over some decades of depleted Mass attendance, an ageing clergy and ageing congregations, we are witnessing pastoral ministry and leadership roles being undertaken by international clergy and new migrants and refugees.

Their youthfulness, energy, zeal, faith, piety and devotion, their love of Australia and its culture and values, their love of the Church, and the richness of the cultures that they bring to community life, are all signs of the movement of the Holy Spirit, and of hope and new life.

Complex issues about multi-culturalism in society and in the Church are very important to be discussed and debated. Yet there is a gaping wound in Australia’s culture and history, of racism, brutality and dispossession towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the original inhabitants of this land, that continues to diminish our nation.

Until we have addressed this constant tragedy we will never be mature as a nation; we will lack authenticity and there will be a hollowness in our espoused community values. I hope that the Plenary Council will offer the Catholic community and the wider community guidance and leadership in this urgent need.

Monsignor David Cappo AO is director of International Clergy Programme, former Commissioner for Social Inclusion in SA, and part-time resident in Uganda, East Africa, developing mental health services.


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