Last Saturday, as the St. Patrick’s Parade filled Fifth Avenue with the music of bagpipes and marching bands, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greeted the crowd from the sidewalk in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was a symbolic image – two descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants as the leaders of the Catholic Church in the greatest city of the world.
The people in the parade were celebrating their Irish heritage, of course, but they were also celebrating two successful evangelization processes – the evangelization of Ireland by Saint Patrick, and the growth of the Catholic Church in America created by successive waves of Irish immigrants.
Poor Irish immigrants built the foundations of the Catholic Church in New York and many other cities in America. German, Polish, Italian immigrants jointed the Irish faithful during the 1800’s and the 1900’s.
In many of their countries of origin, Catholicism was the official religion, but they soon realized that in their new country, they would need to build the churches if they wanted to worship. Build they did, and they kept the faith alive.
Italian and Irish Catholics for almost two centuries have been the backbone of the Church in America. Today, the faithful come from the peripheries of the world, especially from Latin America.
One thing though remains constant – it is still a church of immigrants, as it has been for most of its history. More often than not, Catholics in America have been poor newcomers seen with distrust or skepticism by older, more established communities. And immigration remains a hot political issue, as it has been during several periods of our history.
While rejection has been a typical reaction to the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants, the situation today presents special challenges. The assimilation process for immigrants of yesteryear was more painful than it is today. Communications with family and friends in the old country were difficult and slow. On the other hand, the assimilation process under these strenuous circumstances was accomplished in a shorter time.
The process of becoming an American takes longer today. People go back to their original lands quite often; they can communicate instantly with the relatives they left behind. The old notion of the melting pot has been replaced in some quarters by that of the cultural mosaic. Sometimes the very notion of integration is rejected. We no longer have a consensus about how immigrants can become Americans.
As Christians, we know what Jesus said: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome.”
As American citizens, we need to work for the integrity of the country and the welfare of its citizens. A welcoming attitude and respect for the law should be compatible. We need to be able to discuss our differences and reach compromises. St. Patrick’s Day, and indeed the season of Lent, is a perfect time to remember our immigrant ancestors and to think seriously, without prejudice, about what we need today to keep America – the land of opportunity and a nation of immigrants – true to itself.