By Chris Stone and Ken Stone
In a celebration of diversity, San Diego Roman Catholic leaders and parishioners gathered Saturday in Mira Mesa to honor immigrants and the gifts they bring.
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About 1,400 area parishioners — many in native dress — walked in procession into Good Shepherd Catholic Church behind signs denoting their ethnicity, a la the Olympics. Organizers called the Multicultural Mass a first for the 1.3 million-member diocese.
Pentecost weekend — when the Church marks the descending of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s apostles after the Ascension — was seen as an opportune time to share the spirit of the multifaceted Catholic diocese.
It also served as a reminder of what Catholic unity means in a divisive time.
In coming together as a unified community, “we challenge all of those divisions which selfishness and sinfulness throw up in which our culture can thrust upon us labeling one group, one people superior, inferior,” San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said during the Mass.
Later, McElroy told Times of San Diego: “I do think at this particular time, it has a particular witness value in our society, where such values are somewhat under siege in our society.”
In his homily, McElroy said everyone had come from peoples who at one time had known suffering.
“Many of you have come from experiences of oppression, which led you to be here,” he said. “And thus in a very powerful way, you are called and all of us are called in this moment in our culture in which there is so much antagonism to particular ethnic and cultural groups to resist and to say proudly and in faith we are one because we are all part of the family of God, who is the father of us all.”
In an interview afterward, the bishop called the event a celebration of the universality of the church — “that we are complete as a Catholic Church only when we embrace every culture and people and race and way of life.”
How diverse was the event?
“I never heard my name pronounced in Laotian before,” McElroy said after the Prayer of the Faithful. “And it sounds better that way,” stirring laughter throughout the church.
Joining in the music, dance and free ethnic food were African, African-American, Brazilian, Chamorro, Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Korean, Laotian, Native American Samoan, Tongan and Vietnamese groups from other parishes.
“Having over 17 communities present and all sharing under the same roof really gives a concrete testament of how rich our diocese is in San Diego,” said Maria Olivia Galván, who in February was named the first female chancellor in the diocese including San Diego and Imperial counties.
“The communities in our diocese are very active,” she said, “but the opportunities for them to collaborate together and to be enriched by each others’ presence, histories and traditions and culture is definitely what we are trying to achieve today.”
According to a Georgetown University study of 2014 figures, the San Diego diocese is 63 percent Hispanic, 25 percent non-Hispanic white, 8 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 3 percent African and African-American and 0.5 percent Native American.
Kevin Souvannaphong said the Laotian Catholic community in San Diego numbers 100 families and “we would love to get involved more because we don’t really get invited. I think a lot of time people don’t know that we exist. … A lot of us are scattered around San Diego.”
When a Laotian priest is available, “we come together in prayer,” he said on a day where 20 Laotians took part.
“This means a lot to us,” he said of Saturday’s multicultural gathering. “It’s so beautiful to come together and meet other cultures.”
Jo Hart-Lloyd of the diocese’s African-American Commission called it a day to grow appreciation of her culture’s contributions.
“We have always been involved with the Church,” she said. “We want there to be cultural awareness of our gifts and the importance of our involvement from the beginning when the church started.”
With 2,000 African-Americans in the diocese — 3,000-5,000 black members when adding Africa and the Caribbean to the total — she said: “We would like to evangelize and share our gifts of blackness with the whole universal church.”
The festival — formally called The Holy Spirit Gathering Us as One — took place at Good Shepherd thanks to its central location — and the fact the Very Rev. Michael Pham is pastor there.
A year ago, Pham was named vicar for ethnic and intercultural communities. His idea for the Multicultural Mass took life only two months ago, and it was standing room only in the church Saturday.
“I thought how wonderful it is to gather all people, all different [ethnicities] and race and tongue together,” said Pham. “It’s so beautiful that I can’t really explain what we saw today and the Eucharist.”
People at the festival already were talking about making it an annual event. And Pham is hoping to have more ethnic groups involved next year.
Said Galván, who also serves as director of pastoral ministries: “This is definitely a great starting point in coming together and collaborating with other cultures ministries,” she said. “We are very blessed to have so many cultural communities come together in the spirit of unison and sharing.”
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