A lot has not changed about the Catholic Church over the years. And at the same time, much has.
Walk into a parish, or check out its schedule, and you’re likely to see English services followed by ones in Spanish, or Congolese, or even Creole.
At St. Rose of Lima in Chelsea, Vietnamese is the new normal.
These new, thriving communities within the Church did not spring up overnight. Yet, in recent years, their growth has been a beacon of light, amid the abuse scandals, financial woes and declining attendance.
“Then we have a very large Cape Verdean community, which has three Catholic communities,” said Father Michael Harrington, who runs the Office of Outreach and Cultural Diversity for the Archdiocese of Boston. “We have three Kenyan Catholic communities. We have three Filipino Catholic communities.”
He said language is just one of many things immigrant groups bring to the Church.
“When they come to the Church, they’re looking for a little feeling like home,” Harrington said. “That might include some of their particular devotions that they had when they lived in their country -- maybe their style of music. The style of literature is a little bit different.”
The archdiocese does not keep track of mass attendance by race and ethnicity, but it counts nearly 90 immigrant communities throughout its parishes.
And while only 16 percent of Catholics regularly attend mass in Greater Boston, the Association of Religion Data Archives still ranks Massachusetts as having the highest rate of devout Catholics in the country.
The Church’s makeup has been dramatically shifted by the rise in the Hispanic population. About 68 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. identify as Catholic.
Boston’s Archdiocese includes 36 communities that are Hispanic -- the most among any immigrant group.
But according to Boston College historian James O’Toole, immigrants today are repeating the history of earlier groups.
“Immigrants have been a part of the American Catholic story generally, and certainly the Catholic story in Boston and New England, pretty much for the last 150 years,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole says today there’s less tension over issues like language and assimilation, compared with a century ago when it was Irish and Italian immigrants on the rise.
“A hundred years ago, Italian immigrants, French-Canadian immigrants, German immigrants and so on, it was more important for them over the generations to sustain speaking the mother tongue,” O’Toole said.
Yet for some immigrant parishioners, language remains at the heart of what helps connect them to their church.
It’s a Friday evening and time for the 6:00 Stations of the Cross at Saint Columbkille in Brighton. Unlike the 5:30 service, this one will be in Spanish and led by parishoners themselves.
Around a third of Columbkille’s congregation is Spanish speaking -- hailing from such countries as Cuba, Bolivia and Guatemala.
Another thing that stands out about this Stations of the Cross is music.
Throughout the ceremony parishioners end their readings in song before moving on to the next station, including a hymn called “Perdona A Tu Pueblo,” which means, “Forgive Your People.”
One thing Hispanic congregants at Saint Columbkille don’t have, though, is a Hispanic priest.
“I think it’s necessary for this community, because the community is really growing a lot,” said parishioner Margarita Bunuel. “We have people from South America, Central America.”
Bunuel came to Brighton from Cuba and has attended Saint Columbkille for 45 years. She has nothing but kind words for the church’s staff. She said they’ve welcomed the growing Hispanic congregation with open arms. But she also said she believes there’s still a cultural gap that only a Hispanic priest can fill.
“Sometimes people, they have problems with their jobs and the children,” Bunuel said. “And sure, they need guidance, and sometimes they get intimidated because they don’t think an English- speaking priest is going to understand them.”
Harrington said bridging that cultural gap is key, especially when it comes to American and foreign priests who work in the same parish.
“That is the definite need, a definite need today that the pastors have too -- who might be welcoming this priest to serve in that parish,” Harrington said. “He might be living with that priest in the rectory. He really needs to have some training about the priest and the culture that he’s coming from.”
Such a relationship is taking place at Saint John the Evangelist in North Cambridge. It’s been more than two years since Father Arlin Jean-Louis arrived to help serve the church’s Haitian community.
“We are trying to bring them together, to work together, making team, you know,” Jean-Louis said. “We have a wonderful youth group. You see how all the kids are involved in so many things, doing collections, singing. They’re doing everything, you know. It’s a wonderful experience. I hope that we get enough time to go forward.”
Jean-Louis works with Father Charles Collins, who is the pastor at Saint John. Collins said he and Jean-Louis have carved out a unique working relationship.
“The associate pastor, who is Haitian, we’ve worked it out where he’s in some ways their go-to person,” Collins said. “He’s in their eyes their pastor, whereas then I’m the one that oversees both communities.”
Around 100 Haitians regularly attend Saint John’s Sunday Creole service. For some, like Andree Etienne, the church is their third in 10 years, after two prior Cambridge parishes were closed. Etienne said, so far, she and others have been happy at Saint John and hope there won’t be any more moving.
“It’s like we are in balance,” Etienne said. “We don’t know what is the outcome, when we will be moving again. So it’s like our prayer is always like, ‘God, we want to stay where we are.’ We feel like we’re home.”
That sense of home, though, has not yet fully extended to the rest of the parish. While Collins says there are no major conflicts between Haitians and other congregants, he admits that outreach to bring the Haitian congregation into the larger church community has not always succeeded.
Etienne and fellow parishioner Marieta Montoute said they’ve tried going to Saint John’s English Mass, but don’t feel the same connection as the Creole service.
“My mother, she doesn’t speak English at all,” Etienne said. “I bring her to the mass. Through the end, it’s English. She doesn’t feel comfortable, and her faith is going bad because she doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”
“Myself, too,” Montoute said. “If I go to an English mass, it’s, like, just for the communion.”
But despite their differences, all of Saint John the Evangelist -- and every other congregation in the archdiocese -- do share one other thing in common. Soon, they’ll all be collaborators.
The Archdiocese has just rolled out an ambitious new five-year plan called Disciples in Mission. It restructures all 288 parishes into collaboratives of two or three churches.
Parishes will keep their identity, but only one pastor will oversee each collaborative.
The plan lists eight qualities it’s looking for in a pastor. Two of them address language and culture.