Thursday, March 25, 2010

Because We Welcome Immigrants

Guest post by Allison 
Because my own family has roots in both Latin America and Europe, it has been painful for me to hear some Catholic friends tell me how they fear the influx of Latinos into their churches. I wish these fellow travelers could have come with me and my son Friday night when we visited Saint Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Princeton, New Jersey, for Spanish Stations of Cross.

As part of their CCD programs, our sons must attend two Stations of the Cross during Lent. For our older son, this has been tough. Friday nights find Gabriel at rehearsal with a regional orchestra based in Princeton, 20 miles from our own parish. Now we're running out of Fridays in Lent.

So last Friday, after Gabriel's rehearsal, he and I headed over to St. Paul's on Nassau Street across from Princeton University for Spanish Stations of the Cross, which started at 8. This proved to be one of the most moving experiences I've ever have had inside a Catholic church.

I'm a lifelong Catholic. I never witnessed such a level of devotion among teenagers, or such a young demographic attending Stations of the Cross.

St. Paul's in Princeton was founded in 1847 in response to the many immigrants who settled in the area. It is staying true to its mission. The Latino population in Princeton Borough is growing, primarily with immigrants from southern Mexico and Guatemala. Ten years ago, 8 percent of borough residents were Latino, a percentage that has increased in the intervening years.  

Arriving a little before 8, Gabriel and I found a spot in the pews and said some prayers while we waited for the Stations to begin. By 8, at least 50 people had gathered in the large church. Unlike my home parish, where Stations of the Cross draws mostly senior citizens, virtually all of these worshipers were ages 30 and under, including many families with young children. (By the way, more than half of all Catholics in the United States under the age of 25 are Latino.)

We discovered that the parish's Spanish-language youth group was hosting the Stations that night. 

A cluster of teen-aged girls gathered at the ambo and read from the script while another group of teens and young adults sang on the other side of the altar. A third group, teen-aged boys, reverently led a procession of worshipers around to the 14 Stations. One boy held a large wooden cross and two others held white candles. We worshipers followed them, singing, kneeling and praying at each station as we recalled the Crucifixion. After we completed the Stations, worshipers knelt in their pews for prayer. 

At various times before, during, and after the Stations, several teens spontaneously knelt on the hard marble floor of the Church, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Never have I seen such a spontaneous expression of devotion—not in my parish growing up and not in the parish we now attend. 

At the end, we all prayed El Padre Nuestro and El Ave MarĂ­a. Then a nun who was helping shepherd the worshippers around the sanctuary said a special prayer for the teens. In more direct language than I have heard for years in a Catholic Church, she asked God to keep them safe—from sex before marriage, from drugs and from violence. 

Even those who profess great faith can ignore the Holy Spirit and become distracted by fears and anxieties about newcomers in the pews. Recently, in our home parish, I have heard unfounded fears that by becoming more welcoming to Latino families, say, by offering confession in Spanish, we might: attract gangs, foster heterodoxy, and promote socialism.

One of the beauties and strengths of the U.S. Catholic Church, however, is that we always have been the church of immigrants— welcoming first worshippers from Europe and now the faithful from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels."