Making global space in Catholic parishes

By the 1980s, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and its leadership also confronted the changing demographics of its congregants, building off of the local efforts of Church-supported community groups, such as the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) that had sprung up in East Los Angeles during the 1970s. Roger Mahony, the newly installed archbishop of Los Angeles with a background in UFW organizing, issued a pastoral in January of 1986, just months after he had taken office. Titled, “A New Partnership,” Mahony encouraged all Catholic in Los Angeles to welcome immigrants to the archdiocese and to recognize the gift that ethnic and racial diversity brought to the Catholic Church, proclaiming that there “are no strangers in the community of faith.” In order to more fully accommodate immigrants into the archdiocese, Mahony mandated that his clergy become proficient in at least one foreign language, preferably Spanish, and further stipulated that individual parishes should do everything in their power to adapt the spiritual and social life of the community to better serve new immigrant groups (Dart 1986a).

The attention of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles to the related issues of immigration and cultural pluralism in the 1980s marked an important development in the ongoing evolution of institutional Christian social thought and the dignitarian politics that emerged from it, with a pronounced rootedness in Los Angeles’ neighborhoods and parishes in the city. Whereas notions of dignity had been employed in Catholic circles for decades around issues of labor and race, Mahony’s focus on multicultural concerns within his archdiocese was a reflection of the Catholic Church’s broader embrace of diversity within its ranks, both globally and locally. In many ways, the developments in Los Angeles were the natural outgrowth of the turn to vernacular languages in the liturgy after Vatican II, but Mahony’s social vision went beyond merely offering mass in different languages. Rather, Mahony argued for a multicultural Catholicism that both accommodated and celebrated the cultural riches that new immigrant groups brought to the Church, remaking an institution that had long been dominated by European-American assumptions concerning the proper practice of the faith.

Dubbed the “Plan for Hispanic Ministry,” Mahony’s proposal set aside S2 million for a range of new projects, from the pastoral to the social. Included in the plan were provisions for Spanish-language classes for clergy, a bolstering of bilingual education in Catholic schools, and an increase in scholarship money for Latino students, which provided greater access to Catholic high schools for children from economically disadvantaged families. In addition, Mahony remade his staff to better serve the Latinos, hiring scores of new Spanish-speaking administrators to help implement his pastoral priorities.

However, the aspects of the plan that dealt directly with social outreach in the Latino community were even more transformative of the Church’s mission in Los Angeles. Mahony sets aside funds for the establishment of several shelters for immigrants throughout the archdiocese, as well as a task force which worked to oppose the eviction of undocumented immigrants from public housing. Mahony was particularly concerned about the latter issue, and vowed to register his “concern and disapproval” to federal officials on behalf of the undocumented (Chandler 1986).

The plan’s attention to issues of pressing social concern in the Latino community was not accidental. Mahony’s proposals were part of a national effort on the part of the US Catholic bishops in the 1980s to engage grassroots Latino organizations in formulating a comprehensive plan for outreach to the growing numbers of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States. Through a series of meetings with Latino community leaders across the country, the American bishops identified a number of areas in which the Catholic Church could do more to assist immigrants and provide better pastoral care for Spanish-speakers, including scholarship aid for Latinos to enroll in Catholic schools, as well as an increase in church-sponsored social services in Latino neighborhoods (Chandler 1986).

In Los Angeles, Mahony enlisted the help of the UNO, the church-based community organizers on the Eastside, to achieve the social goals of his plan. Leaders from UNO were consulted extensively before the plan was announced, and were influential in developing its larger social vision that included concern for undocumented immigrants, as well as addressing the economic challenges faced by Latino students in the city (Chandler 1986). Drawing from his experience working with the UFW, Mahony was far more open to working with grassroots organizations than his predecessors, leading directly to a plan that conformed to the concrete needs of the Latino community. In many ways, the “Plan for Hispanic Ministry” represented the convergence of traditional, top-down approaches to social problems by the churches with the grassroots, congregation-based models that had been developing in Los Angeles since the 1960s.


The “Pentecost moment” of many of Los Angeles’ myriad churches, as these brief historical examples have shown, reveal a city in which religious change occurred at global and local scales. Building on the region’s long history of religious pluralism and diversity, and spurred by immense demographic change, church leaders and laity alike forged new immigrant churches, revamped traditional teachings, and engaged in substantive interreligious dialog. Moreover, they created new spaces in which global theological currents, the migration of peoples, and changing neighborhoods converged to make Los Angeles a prime example of a global Christian community, still very much in the making.

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