SAN DIEGO — In the very first homily he delivered in the Diocese of San Diego, Bishop Robert McElroy noted that virtually every nationality and culture was vibrantly present in the local Church.
“Cultural diversity constitutes a powerful gift of the Holy Spirit palpably here in our midst,” he said, and he pledged to foster a Church culture “that honors unity and diversity equally in forming this Body of Christ.”
Under his leadership, the diocese has strengthened the cultural communities, added new ones to the fold, and raised their profile in the local Church. He’s invited their leaders to participate in decision-making councils and commissions at the diocese. The diverse voices, united in their love of God, serve as a powerful antidote to divisions roiling society.
In 2017, the bishop re-energized the Office for Ethnic and Intercultural Communities and tapped Father Michael Pham, himself a refugee from Vietnam, to lead it.
Father Pham and his assistants have worked tirelessly to help the communities to preserve their faith traditions and to share them with the greater Catholic community. They include African American, Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, Italian, Korean, Laotian, Native American, Samoan and Vietnamese communities.
Traditionally, the cultures kept to themselves, holding their Masses and celebrations for their own communities. In 2018, the office invited all of the cultures to come together for the inaugural Pentecost Mass for All People, to be celebrated by Bishop McElroy
In a matter of weeks they had to get to know each other and come together to organize such an intricate event, which included a festival with traditional foods and music after the Mass.
They bridged cultures and languages and held a beautiful Mass, which drew a full house of
1,600 to Good Shepherd Church, many clad in their native attire, for this colorful feast of faith and culture.
The following year, the diocese moved the Mass to Cathedral Catholic High School to accommodate hundreds more.
In 2020, the Pentecost Mass was in line to be canceled as the Covid-19 pandemic was gaining ground. But the cultural leaders wanted to continue their extraordinary Mass and challenged the diocese to come up with a way to do so.
The result was a Mass held virtually, with Bishop McElroy able to join members of the cultural communities through a giant TV screen, with the whole celebration live-streamed.
The number of communities participating in this Mass has continued to grow. The fifth annual edition, held in June 4, 2022, drew more than 2,000 faithful.
In collaboration with Father Pham, the bishop has empowered cultural leaders to develop events and programs meaningful to them and the diocese. They organized five online forums, called “My Church, My Story: Listen, Dialogue and Action,” from August of 2020 to February of 2021.
Each forum featured speakers who shared their story about how racism had affected their life, particularly in the Church. Then, participants were invited to propose ways their parishes, diocese and the Church itself could root out racism.
The Office organized special Masses, celebrated by the bishop, to call attention to the pain two populations were enduring and to pray for racial healing. The first was held on June 7, 2020, for the African American community in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The second one was held April 15, 2021, to accompany the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, which had been the target of assaults and deadly violence across the country.
Semret Kelit, whose roots are in Eritrea, helped to organize the forums on racism. “It says a lot about what we can do in our Church if given an opportunity to participate,” she said. “We can contribute. We can implement. We can be part of change.”