Feast Celebrations Build Community

Posted: 12/11/2005

Our Lady of GuadalupeAs the Christmas hymns sound through the little church in Grayson, Ky., at the Christmas Vigil, Margret Bradley sings a Christmas standard in the language in which it was written: Stille Nacht...

As she finishes, another singer rises and sings in Romanian, Sfant lacas...

Father Bruce Brylinksi and his mother follow by singing in Polish, Cicha noc...

Then a Hispanic member begins, Noche de paz...

Finally, the English-speaking members sing, Silent Night...

That Christmas moment at Sts. John and Elizabeth in Grayson illustrates the blending of cultures that takes place in Grayson and in many other Glenmary missions on a daily basis. Incorporating the Latino voices and cultures that have been arriving in mission communities in recent years, however, is not always as seamless as the singing of this Christmas carol. But the many new feasts and celebrations that these immigrants are bringing with them from Mexico and Central America are slowly being integrated into parish life in Mission Land, USA—as well as into the larger U.S. Church.

Father Frank Ruff, pastor of St. Susan Church in Elkton, Ky., identifies Hispanic celebrations as "places where we can find bonding," but adds that it is difficult to bring groups together in activities that rely heavily on language. "There is resistance to bi-lingual Masses, and rightly so," Father Frank says. "They're not really good for anyone." But, while groups find it difficult to come together in worship because of language barriers, they seem eager to come together socially for parties and parish events.

Mexicans in the Todd County parish took the lead in planning a party to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16 "and made a real festival out of it," Father Frank says. In addition to a potluck meal (the centerpiece of any parish gathering, regardless of language!), they played games. "The Anglos were able to play, and it was a great way for the two groups to come together," Father Frank says.

Advent contains the greatest of Mexican feasts—Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. In Grayson and Elkton, as well as the missions in Waldron, Ark., and Eupora, Miss., the day starts with mananitas, prayers that say "good morning" to the Blessed Mother and ends hours later with a fiesta.

In Eupora, the congregation is combining the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with the Feast of St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. His feast day is Dec. 9.

"We'll have a Word and Communion service, and the Rising Stars and Shining Stars [the parish youth group] is doing a play," says pastoral coordinator Sister Alies Thérèse. The play tells the story of the appearance of the Blessed Mother to Juan Diego.

While the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration is primarily Hispanic in nature, many mission hope that Anglos will eventually join their Hispanic brothers and sisters in celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patroness of the Americas. But that reality will take effort and work from both communities.

The importance of blending ethnic communities was a topic at the recent U.S. Catholic Mission Association Congress in Tucson, Ariz., Sister Alies says. Sister Eva Marie Lumis spoke on the topic of multicultural communities and emphasized that everyone has an ethnic background. "Her talk was wonderful," says Sister Alies, who attended the congress. "She talked about the need for everyone to stretch in a multicultural situation."

The "stretching," Sister Alies says, is a good way of describing the work that is involved in bringing various cultures together into a single parish community. The decoration and food committees in Eupora, for example, are made up mostly of Anglos, but they participate in the planning and execution of the Hispanic celebrations-"as they would for any parish event," Sister Alies says.

In Waldron the observance of the feast takes place in the midst of las posadas, a nightly ritual that begins 12 days before Christmas with the reenactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. Over 100 people in Waldron gather at the home of a different host each night. They knock on the door, ask for shelter and are told to go away. Again they knock and are sent away.

On the third knock, the host welcomes the people into the home where they celebrate with song and food, says Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor of the Waldron and Danville, Ark., missions as well as a mission in Heavener, Okla.

Father Neil says that the involvement of Anglos in las posadas and the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast has increased each year in Waldron.

"I've always expected that everyone would participate," he says. He sees people moving together for parties and feeling more comfortable with each other. "We're building community. Hospitality will lead to community and stewardship. If we make the church a place of welcome, people will come."

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.