Multi-cultural parish seeks to become a “community of communities”

Christina Gray

Catholic San Francisco

With 15 Masses offered each week in four languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Portuguese — St. Raphael Church in San Rafael is a beautiful example of the kind of multicultural parish that has become increasingly representative of Catholic life in the U.S.

Culturally-diverse parishes are the fastest growing type of parish in the United States, according to a 2016 report on cultural diversity in Catholic parishes commissioned by the U.S. bishops.

Catholics from different cultural backgrounds sharing a common parish life is a wonderful ideal, according to St. Raphael pastor Father Luello Palacpac, but it doesn’t happen automatically. He believes it requires the cultivation of a new culture of sorts. In April, the parish held its first pastoral assembly, the result of a years-long process aimed at transforming St. Raphael into a more unified “community of communities.”

“We respect the different culture and traditions of each ethnic group here,” said Father Palacpac on May 16, about a month after the successful assembly which identified three initial priorities: Improved multilingual communication, increase parishioner involvement with a focus on youth, and faith formation for all ages.

Multilingual communications is the number one goal on the list because it helps make all other goals achievable, he said. “Is it possible to go outside of our comfort zone and try to establish a new culture where there is no one dominant culture, but one in which everyone is sharing their own respective cultures?” he asked.  “That is our dream, that is our vision.”

“Is it possible to go outside of our comfort zone and try to establish a new culture where there is no one dominant culture, but one in which everyone is sharing their own respective cultures? That is our dream, that is our vision.”

Father Palacpac

Despite the rich diversity of the parish population at St. Raphael, the new pastor noticed soon after his installation in July 2020 that it effectively functioned as four separate parish communities, with little intersection between them. Each had its own liturgical services, devotions and sacred traditions in native tongues. Each had its own leadership, music, ministries, religious education, events and more.

Little effort, it seemed, had been made historically to try integrate the unique ethnic groups, Father Palacpac said. Until recent decades, the Anglo population was by far the dominant culture. Today, Hispanic parishioners are the majority.

Deacon David Bernstein said one result of independently-functioning communities was a duplication or segregation of efforts.

“One of the things Father observed is that we had two or three and sometimes even four of the same ministries, each that went their own way,” he said.

Renewal process dovetails with focus on “synodality”

Father Palacpac had spent five years as pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Pacifica when he was assigned to St. Raphael at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. He left Good Shepherd after leading the parish through a comprehensive renewal process.

“For me the pandemic was a blessing in disguise,” said the new pastor, who as the church and its activities began slowly resuming, met with parishioners, listened to their stories and hearing their “hopes and dreams” for the parish.

He identified a small number of “key people” whom he invited to serve on his pastoral leadership team. Distinct from the pastoral council, these individuals, trusted leaders in the parish’s core communities, serve the pastor in an advisory capacity.

Initiating a parish renewal process at St. Raphael coincided with Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality, a call for parishes to join bishops in a two-year process of listening, dialogue and discernment from 2021 to 2023. The word “synod” comes from two Greek works meaning, “walking together.” Synodality describes the best way for the entire church to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading it.

“This is exactly what we want to see happen here,” said Father Palacpac. “How can we journey together in spite of our differences? Not just in spite of our differences, but with our differences being a strength.”

Light and shadows revealed

In September and November of 2021, parishioners were invited to the school gym to begin conversations that would lead to the pastoral assembly in April 2022.  All of the major language and cultural groups in the parish were represented in this process, ensuring that it was as inclusive and complete as possible, according to Deacon Bernstein.

Strengths of the parish were identified collectively as a “disposition toward unity” and an energetic community with “tremendous zeal.”

A weakness, or a “shadow area” for the parish was summarized this way in the pastoral assembly program: “Even though diversity of language, culture, and traditions enriches our parish, it also complicates efforts to unify us,” it read in part. “… Language differences hinder communication and interaction among parishioners.  Differences in our native tongues and faith traditions from our various cultures can affect participation in liturgical celebrations, ministries, and pastoral activities when they are conducted in languages other than our own.” 

Overcoming a “tendency toward insularity within our language groups” was posed as a significant challenge, acknowledging that it can be “uncomfortable and awkward to be in a setting where a language other than our own is being spoken.”

Fear, resistance and unexpected joy

Father Palacpac said that he found most of his St. Raphael parishioners “malleable, receptive and open to change” in discussing parish renewal. “That is the reason why in only one year we were able to propel the parish forward to the pastoral assembly,” he said.

Father Palacpac distributes Holy Communion for First Communion this year.

“It was challenging, hearing it at first,” said Jonathan Campos, a young Brazilian musician who leads music for the Portuguese-language Mass. When the parish first started brainstorming in discussions leading to the pastoral assembly, he admitted he wasn’t sure “what we were getting ourselves into.”

Father Palacpac invited him and others to help translate the meeting documents into Portuguese. “It does mean more work, but it also means that more people will feel invited and included,” he said.

Better multilingual communication was the number one goal that came out of the pastoral assembly, with the formation of a collaborative communications ministry that converts the bulletin, readings, homilies and other parish communications into the languages necessary for all.

Campos said it was amazing how quickly it was acted on. “It seemed like a bigger mountain to climb than it really was,” he said.

He was so inspired by the idea of a cohesive parish community that he wrote a song called, “One” that Father Palacpac intends to become the recessional hymn at all Masses.

“For what we are, we bleed the same, we breathe the same, so let us see each other in the image of your love,” reads a line from the song.

There is some resistance of course, said Father Palacpac. There are those that fear their culture, language and traditions will get diluted or disappear if shared or integrated with others.

Parishioners attend Mass at St. Raphael.

Unconscious bias also plays a role, he said.

“Some don’t believe that anyone outside their community would like to celebrate their traditions,” he said.

Beginning on Pentecost Sunday, the parish will offer one special multilingual Mass each month followed by food and music from the each ethnic community.

Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and English-language Masses will continue as they have.

Pastoral assembly

Father Palacpac said the pastoral assembly in April was focused on “communal discernment” through prayer.

In the first two sessions, people “kind of had their own agenda,” he said. “But in the third conversation, we asked ourselves, what does the good Lord want us to do for the parish? We had to really get outside ourselves.”

The assembly was held at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, where the morning was spent before the Blessed Sacrament.

“You could really see a cohesiveness form right away,” he said.

Parishioner Peggy Semling, said the presence of the Holy Spirit has been “palpable” in the meetings that have brought more than 100 parishioners together from every pocket of the parish.

“There was a deep yearning in all of us to come together as one in the body of Christ, learn each other’s names and stories, and really be a parish family with the folks from all the different language groups,” she said.  “We were speaking together for the first time in the language of love, and understood each other even if it was through a helpful neighbor translating.”