In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke describes the day of Pentecost as an event of universal significance. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, the variety of nations and cultures that heard them speak represented the seeds of the Catholic Church. “We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11).
Luke’s incredible list of peoples encompassed the entire known world at the time. From the very beginning of its existence, then, the Church has embraced every human culture with the understanding that all people have souls to save, no matter what race they come from or language they speak. The Gospel message didn’t annihilate those cultures but purified and transformed them into civilizations that reflect the life and love of God more profoundly.
The Second Vatican Council noted, “In virtue of this catholicity [that is, universality] each individual part contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase” (Lumen Gentium, No. 13).
In other words, whenever the Church offers the Gospel message to the people of different cultures, both benefit: The Church is enriched as much as the culture that receives the message of salvation. In Catholic terminology we call this process “enculturation,” where the diversity of cultures is incorporated into the Church and the Good News of Jesus Christ is spread more broadly and deeply into human society. This was a theme that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized continually in their writings and travels.
I often think of the Pentecost narrative as we debate issues of national significance in our political and social life. If any nation can lay claim to the title of “universal” it is the United States of America. The history and diversity of ethnic groups that form our one nation is simply astounding. Our national motto is “E pluribus unum” (out of many [peoples], one), further underlying the truth that America has in some way always reflected the universality of God’s love for the human race. We are many cultures coming together as one nation united under one constitution.
Americans are accustomed to the venerable analogy of our society as a “melting pot,” which symbolizes a diversity of things being thrown into a container on a fire, melting into one amorphous whole. It is certainly very descriptive, but that analogy seems to entail the loss of the uniqueness of the parts that come together. I have always preferred the image of the “mixed salad” (or perhaps the “patchwork quilt” or “tapestry”) where the individuality of each piece is maintained but brought together to form one beautiful new thing. Nothing is destroyed; rather, the whole is enriched by the diversity of the parts.
If you think that America has not benefitted by the influx of different cultures, just recall the last time you ate pizza, watched Irish dancing or traveled to American cities with foreign names and institutions. So many immigrants have come to America for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy, and, in return, those different cultures have made many unique contributions to America through which everyone benefits.
I believe that the Catholic Church has had a broad and fruitful mission field in the United States from the beginning precisely because Catholicism finds a natural home in a nation that embraces such cultural diversity. Catholics comprise almost a quarter of the U.S. population today; in our Church every possible ethnic group is represented as a sort of microcosm of the universal Church. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, for example, Mass is celebrated in 33 different languages every Sunday!
There is, however, a tendency in political life — and this is surely evident in American history — for the established society to be threatened by the influx of people from other cultures who bring their differences with them. Yet as Catholics we must keep in mind that our whole national narrative is rooted in this tremendous wealth of people coming together to form one nation under God. We must see and embrace the different cultures like the apostles did on the Day of Pentecost: as a blessing, an opportunity for salvation and mutual enrichment. America provides a unique environment for that blessing to flourish.
Still early on in this new year, with whole new opportunities for evangelization, we must realize that we are all part of the tapestry of this great culture which reflects, in some mysterious way, the universal mission of the Church. We should not be afraid to offer the gift of the Gospel message to others. It is Christ himself we offer, but, as the principles of enculturation show, we also receive so much in return.
Most Rev. Felipe J. Estevez is Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida.