Improving Intercultural Communication Skills for Catechists and Pastoral Leaders

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The United States has been a land of immigrants, making it the fifth most multicultural country in the world. In America, about 25 percent of all people self-identifies as Catholics, making Catholicism the single largest religious group in the US. The Catholic Church in the United States is experiencing a time of major transitions, such as demographic, cultural, social, and even political, these changes are demanding adjustments to how Catholics share their faith.

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How so Catholics share their faith?

The new reality requires innovating ways of doing catechesis and evangelization that respond to the demands of the culturally diverse contexts. In some parishes, catechizing and evangelizing in a culturally diverse reality requires exploring a new language or learning about a different cultural tradition to better share the Catholic faith. One way or another, cultural diversity affects the person; whether lay or ordained, who is commissioned to perform some act on behalf of the Church. Catholic Ministers serving in diverse contexts need to develop the appropriate intercultural competencies to successfully catechize and evangelize. Therefore, having good intercultural communication skills is valuable and important.

Because of the major growth of the Hispanic population, Catholicism in several American regions and major cities has become a bilingual and bicultural reality.

“Intercultural communication is the sending and receiving of messages across languages and cultures. It is also a negotiated understanding of meaning in human experiences across social systems and societies.” (Arent, R., 2009) It is important to noticed that intercultural communication can happen among people from the same culture but belong to other subcultures. A subculture is a smaller group within a larger culture that shares language or behavioral patterns that are different from the larger group. This paper addresses the question why ministers serving in the Catholic Diocese of Toledo need intercultural skills to be successful in their ministry.

First, let’s put things in perspective by studying some data. Widely known as a leading voice of Hispanic ministry and catechesis, Dr. Hosffman Ospino explains “there are about 17,200 parishes in the United States. […] About 4,500 Catholic parishes in the country explicitly serve Hispanic Catholics, primarily offering services in Spanish. The two fastest growing groups of Catholics in the country are Hispanics and Asians. Six out of ten U.S. Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic.” (pg.11) These statistics help us understand the present reality and anticipating where the Church is heading soon. Taking time to understand the data will allow ministers to get creative about catechesis and evangelization.

Dr. Hospino in his book Interculturalism and Catechesis: A Catechist’s Guide to Responding to Cultural Diversity describes the early waves of Catholic migration in the U.S. The faithfulness, creativity and tenacity of many immigrants from many parts of the world had sustained the Catholic Church in the United States. Way before the U.S. was founded as a nation the first Catholics arrived from Spain. They settle in the South and the West, and some in the Southeast as well as in the Caribbean. Follow by the French Catholics, who built churches in the old Louisiana Territory. Then, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Black Catholics joined the church. Slavery and racial discrimination prevented this community from fully join into the church and flourish. Unfortunately, many of those negative effects are still valid in our day.

Once the United States became an independent nation, millions of Western Europeans arrived at this country and settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Dr. Ospino explains “by the middle of the twentieth century, more than 23,000 parishes, more than 13,000 Catholic schools, and thousands of other structures, including hospitals and universities, served as evidence of a strong Catholic presence and contributions to the larger U.S. society.” (pg. 15) The European Catholics blessed the United States immensely. Today, many hospitals, parishes, schools and universities still provide services to the American people.

Because the immigrant European Catholics did not spoke English, the Catholic Bishops of the United States created the national parishes. These parishes sustained the faith of millions of faithful immigrants by providing services in their native languages and respecting their culture, for example Italian Catholics stablish Italian parishes, German Catholics German parishes, and so on. Dr. Ospino explains “national parishes were true cultural and linguistic oases for these immigrants and their families. These parishes played a key role in supporting the relationship between faith and culture.” (pg. 14) European Catholics were able to nurture and pass along their faith to their children thanks to the help of many ministers who worked for the national parishes.

Currently, globalization and new migration patterns are two realities that have impacted the Catholic Church in the United States. These two realities influence the way Catholic ministers do catechesis. Dr. Ospino offers three shifts worthy of consideration. First shift, young Americans, due to the influence of the contemporary cultural realities, are more comfortable receiving, processing, creating, saving and discarding religious information. Catechist need to be more creative; they should not limit their teaching tools to a catechism or a book. The second shift is using the internet and social media as tools for evangelization and catechism. Ministers must learn how to use these resources to share the Good News. Lastly, the third shift, in the modern-day people possess a higher sensibility about global dynamics. Dr. Ospino mentions “about seventeen million Catholics in the United States are immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A catechesis that fails to make global connections in our day runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.” (pg. 17) Ministers that pretend to ignore the cultural make up among the parishioners will fail to evangelize and catechize.

Locally, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo serves about 295,000 people in a mixture of urban and rural areas that spans 19 counties in Northwest Ohio. The diocese includes Allen, Crawford, Defiance, Erie, Fulton, Hancock, Henry, Huron, Lu2cas, Ottawa, Paulding, Putnam, Richland, Sandusky, Seneca, Van Wert, Williams, Wood, and Wyandot counties.

Early nineteenth century settlers traveled to the Northwest Ohio area with their most prized possession—their Catholic faith to lay the groundwork for the diocese. The Irish came as laborers for the building of the canals, and later the railroads; the Germans came searching for land that they would clear and transform from swamps into fertile farms; the French, Hungarians, Italians, Mexican-Americans, Poles, Slovaks and African-Americans came placing their talents in the service of industry; missionaries followed to minister to the spiritual needs of these pioneers. In 2016, out of the total catholic population living within the boundaries of the Catholic Diocese of Toledo 38,000 were Hispanic, 2,300 of African descent and 3,100 Asian. This rich diversity continues to give life to the diocese.

The Catholic Church’s main purpose is to evangelize. In his dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium, St. Paul VI writes “The Church has received from the apostles Christ’s solemn command to proclaim the truth which saves, and it must carry it to the very ends of the earth” (no. 17). The definition of evangelize is to “spread the Good News.” At the heart of the gospel message is the encounter with Jesus Christ and the salvation he brings to the world. Once someone has had an encounter with the risen Jesus, she or he comes incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Saint Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, shares a profound teaching about the meaning of evangelization. Spreading the Good News, it is not directed only to the salvation of individual souls, but to entire societies and cultures. In St. Paul VI understanding of the “evangelization of cultures,” those values and patterns of living that shape individual lives and societies are brought into encounter with Christ so that all may have life in abundance (Jn 10:10). Taking in consideration the culturally pluralistic society, what does Evangelization looks like? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offer some thoughts for reflection:

  • The faith of Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from elsewhere may serve as a stimulus to the faith and devotion of those in the Church who are more aligned with the prevailing culture. Devotion to family among immigrant populations may bring about a rethinking of how the family structure has eroded in a secularized and globalized society.
  • A fresh or a first encounter with Jesus Christ, seen through the eyes of those marginalized by the prevailing culture, can rekindle commitment to social justice and solidarity.
  • The response to evangelization is conversion, a re-commitment to Jesus Christ and his message of salvation. As people from different cultures encounter one another, they may be able to see their faith in a new light.

The Catholic Church is called to share the gospel with the entire world. Therefore, all believers are responsible of the missionary activities. The pastor is the first evangelizer of the parish. He is the leader that encourage the faithful laity to become intentional disciples always ready to share the gospel. Therefore, Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, in his article Intercultural Competence and the Priestly Vocation explains “every ecclesial minister beginning with the priest must be prepared to work in and with today’s cultural, language, and social contexts.” (pg. 36) Unfortunately, most programs of priestly formation don’t offer any intercultural competencies training. This paper proposes that to effectively evangelize priest must poses intercultural competencies.

What it means to be intercultural competent? Fr. Figueroa explains “intercultural competence refers specifically to the knowledge, attitudes and skills that will prepare priestly ministers to successfully pursue their missionary discipleship of Christ.” (pg.39) To serve God’s Kingdom is to engage all cultures in dialogue and proclamation of the Gospel. Intercultural competence is the capacity to communicate, relate, and work across cultural boundaries. As Fr. Figueroa mentioned, intercultural competencies involve developing capacity in three areas: knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Knowledge could involve the following examples: knowledge of more than one perspective on things, different interpretations of the same cultural reality, general dynamics of intercultural communication, and speaking more than one’s first language. Skills entail the following: ability to empathize, tolerate ambiguity, and adapt communication and behavior. Attitudes include the following: openness to others and other cultures, wanting to learn and engage other cultures, understanding intercultural interaction as a way of life, not a problem to be solved, and mindfulness.

Depending on whether the person is part of the dominant culture these areas of knowledge, skills, and attitudes function in two different ways. If the priest is a member of the dominant culture, he can get along to a great degree with very little knowledge of other cultures, because members of the dominant culture expect those of other cultures to learn to operate in the dominant culture. In the BICM handbook the Bishops of the United States explain “for prevailing-culture people to gain intercultural competence, they may have to learn to think in cultural categories before they can begin to exercise greater competency in moving across cultures.”

Second, if the priest is a member of a culture other than the dominant one, he has already learned a considerable amount about intercultural communication because he has had to in order to survive in the prevailing culture. He probably already knows how to work with the community. He may have developed what African American philosopher W.E.B. DuBois called a ‘double consciousness’, meaning he can think in his own distinctive cultural way, and he have found a way to negotiate through a prevailing culture that looks down on him as inferior. He also may carry wounds of being discriminated against, excluded, and treated as less than he really is.

The BICM handbook suggested the following five parameters, no culture is exclusively one or the other, though every culture will tend to be closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. The Catholic priest should be aware of the five parameters.

The most fundamental and important parameter for understanding cultures is the parameter of Collectivism versus Individualism. In a predominantly collectivist culture, maintaining the group has priority over the individual’s hopes and desires. The individual is defined by his or her position in the group. Many times, within this group the elders may make major life decisions, such as about a professional occupation or about a marriage partner, for individuals within the group. Family is understood as the extended family. Maintaining the honor or the ‘reputation’ of the group is very importance. Loyalty to the group is the highest value. Preserving harmony within the group is a major concern.

In a predominantly individualist culture, the individual has priority over the group. The individual is ultimately responsible for his or her life decisions. Family is generally understood as the immediate or nuclear family. Loyalty to the larger group is not anticipated. Individuals are expected to be independent and creative, and they are encouraged to seek self-fulfillment. How the individual stands out from the group is an important measure of this. Individualism is strongest in Western societies, and it is predominant in about one-third of the world’s cultures. Collectivism is more common in East and South Asian societies, as well as in Latin American and African societies. Collectivism is often stronger in rural settings than in urban areas because modernization usually promotes more individualist values. The prevailing culture in the United States is individualist. Catholic teaching has leaned more toward the collectivist understanding. For example, most would agree that in Catholic social teaching, the basic unit of society is the family, not the individual. At the same time, the dignity of each human person is also a very important in the Catholic teachings.

The second parameter is Hierarchy versus Equality. Collectivist societies usually exhibit some measure of hierarchy; sometimes they exhibit a considerable level of hierarchy. Because communication up the hierarchical scale is indirect, there are many implicit rules to learn for those coming from other cultures. One of the most difficult for outsiders is learning to read when ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and when ‘yes’ means ‘no’: one does not dishonor one’s superiors by saying ‘no’ to them. Democratic societies are never completely egalitarian, but they like to present themselves as such. This can make them hard to read for outsiders.

The Catholic Church has strong hierarchical patterns. Thus, Americans tend to understand the Church as People of God in a much more democratic form than it has been understood elsewhere. Catholics coming from more hierarchical societies will often be puzzled by the polarities in the Catholic Church in the United States, where people from a highly individualist setting challenge rules about hierarchical structures and decision making in the Church.

Third parameter, low tolerance of ambiguity versus high tolerance of ambiguity. Rural communities and small-scale cultures tend to be low-tolerance ones. Catholics, especially in majority-Catholic countries, typically were low-tolerance, but that sometimes changes in urban populations. Urbanized populations, which must deal with a great deal of pluralism, tend to be more highly tolerant of ambiguity.

Parameter four, a masculine versus a feminine understanding of gender roles. Western countries emphasize a more ‘feminine’ approach to gender roles, especially in urban settings. This often clashes with more ‘masculine’ differentiations in rural settings and more ‘traditional’ cultures. Catholic Church documents at the level of the Vatican affirm the equal dignity of women and men, but they tend toward a ‘masculine’ reading of gender roles. The very use of the term ‘gender’ is considered in some circles as a ‘radical feminist’ approach. How to read gender roles is a very important within Church settings.

Finally, parameter five, lived-experience versus abstract time orientation. This is a complex area, covering the meaning of time in different communities, how it affects interaction, and what values are privileged in differing understandings of time. In this approach, time is subjugated to the needs of the community and fostering relationships in the community. Emphasis is on the past and present. Upholding traditions and fulfilling social obligations have priority over thinking about the future. For example, a meeting never begins in such cultures until everyone has arrived and each person has had the chance to greet everyone else and inquire about their families. These past relationships determine the present. Long-term planning is not a priority. In these cultures, one typically thinks about the short term and places an emphasis on maintaining human relationships.

In a culture where long-term approaches to time exist, time is a value, for example ‘time is money’, and social interactions are to be ordered to its requirements and demands. Meetings focus on the tasks to be accomplished more than the enhancement of human relationships. While emphasis is on the present, such cultures especially concentrate on the future. Abstract ideas and long-term goals are valued, and their achievement is calculated and calibrated into units of time. Human relationships support these possibilities but are secondary. Thus, meetings begin and end at certain time, and what needs to be done must fit within that segment. The goal is to achieve the objectives.

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Improving Intercultural Communication Skills for Catechists and Pastoral leaders. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved June 26, 2022 , from
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