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The Catholic Church in the United States: One Faith, One Church, Many Customs

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Catholic Church in the United States traces its roots to several countries around the world. Unlike the Church in Africa or Europe, where Christianity grew into its current form through the preaching of first-generation Christians, the Church came to the U.S. already vibrant, shaped by generations of the faithful from places like England, Ireland, Spain and France. And unlike other lands where only a handful of religious missionaries spread the Gospel among native populations, many Catholic immigrants came to the U.S. to build communities and continue their way of life. As a result, local churches in the States have many unique qualities distinguishing them from each other.

For example, were one to travel through the southwest region, from Texas to California, one would see the influence of Spanish architecture brought by missionaries who settled the region and built churches and schools. In Louisiana and up the Mississippi River, one encounters French-styled buildings and parishes tracing their lineage back to Colonial France. Irish settlers brought a distinct sense of Catholic tradition through New York and into the midwestern region. In the midst of these larger settlements, Italian, German and Polish immigrants, and many from East Asian countries made homes and built parishes throughout the country.

Even today people refer to “the Polish parish” down the road or “the Vietnamese parish” across town. While each parish celebrates Mass in union with the Universal Church, each community has its own customs, such as the Italian community’s St. Joseph Altar. Such customs, traditional folk music, and other rituals enhance the richness of Catholic life in the U.S. These ethnic parishes and distinctive customs also unite generations of descendents back to their ancestral homes around the world.

These differences of culture do not change the fact that we are all Catholic. In some cases, older and more successful parishes will welcome smaller ethnic groups into the fold, fostering their growth and learning from new members. These immigrant communities, many of which embrace the faith as core to their identity, often bring to the larger parish a renewed appreciation for Catholic traditions.
 Education is perhaps the most successful impact of the Catholic Church on the culture of the United States. Initially envisioned as a way to ensure Catholic children received an education centered in Christian values, many Catholic schools became premiere institutions in their field. For example, thousands of alumni owe their success to Providence College (Providence, Rhode Island) and Fenwick High School (Oak Park, Illinois), both founded and served by Dominican Friars. Additionally, many parochial schools offered children of all faith traditions a solid education in preparation for college.

The Church in the United States is diverse. Yet, we profess the same faith; share the same communion with our brothers and sisters throughout the country and worldwide; and work together to evangelize, serve the poor, teach, and even reach out to newcomers making a home in our country. In a country threatened by differences in political ideology and suffering constant attack on the moral life, many faithful of all ages and ethnic backgrounds unite as one Christian community by holding to the Catholic faith and passing the Gospel to our children and neighbors.

Augustine OP


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