While celebrating the opening Mass on April 21 for the Archdiocese of Washington’s first Intercultural Encounter, Cardinal Donald Wuerl told the 150 participants representing many different backgrounds, languages and cultures that like the first Christians who were also diverse, they are united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit into one Church, as children of God and brothers and sisters to each other.

“Our task as Church is to see that blessing of unity, in that great multicultural diversity,” he said in his homily.

The all-day gathering at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine was sponsored by the archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach.

Scripture readings at the Mass were proclaimed in Spanish and English, and prayers were read in many languages, including Chinese, Tagalog from the Philippines, Igbo from Nigeria, and French. Many participants joined hands to pray the Our Father together.

After Communion, the cardinal noted that as people prayed and sang together at the Mass, “we heard the voices of this great diverse Church.” He encouraged them to look around and see the faces of the Church in people representing so many different traditions who are united in their Catholic faith. As they go forth and “reflect this beautiful reality” in the community, “we can help build a better world,” he  said.

Before the morning session began, some participants reflected on how that reality is lived in their parish community, and on the importance of that day’s gathering.

Dominican Sister Judith Maldonado, who coordinates family ministry at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with her twin, Sister Maristella Maldonado, noted, “We’re all different, but we are one body, the body of Christ.”

She noted that her parish, serving a diverse community with 10 weekend Masses in English, Spanish and French, “is just like this… We have learned to work together. Even though we come from different places, we work as one family, one community.” She added, “Christ is the one who unites us.”

Edwin Mendez, the business manager at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, noted that the people there represent 60 different nationalities.

That day’s event, he said, “is important, because we are all one, and Jesus wants unity. He wants us all to be united. That’s one of his commandments, to love one another, and one of the best ways to do that is to be together… and getting to know each culture.”

Mendez said he hoped that the day would result in ideas on “how to grow together with different cultures as one body.”

Opening the morning session, Javier Bustamante – the executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach – said calling the day an “encounter” seemed more fitting than labeling it as a conference.

“We need an opportunity to come together and share our gifts and challenges” and accompany and support each other while sharing the faith and passing it on to the next generation, he said, adding, “What we really want today is an experience of encounter.”

As discussions began, people were divided into groups representing their backgrounds in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands, and African Americans and others born in the United States.

Bustamante noted that he was born in Peru and recalled the religious devotions like outdoor processions that were woven into his family’s life. Faith and family, he said, “are the roots that ground me.”

The people from the different parts of the world shared the roots of their faith and the gifts and values within their cultural groups, including praying and attending Mass together as families, the importance of values like sacrifice, generosity and gratitude, and how music and food were key parts of their cultures. Catholics from Asia noted their tradition of respect for elders, African Catholics pointed out the responsibility to serve God and others, and U.S. born Catholics spoke of the importance of understanding the faith so they can defend it in the public square.

During the lunch break, some participants told the Catholic Standard about values they learned from their cultures. Jefreena Packianathan, a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg who has family roots in India and works as an IT consultant, noted that in her country which has so many different languages and cultural traditions, people learn “you should always be respectful of how other people practice their faith.”

Wendy Lin, a research fellow and member of Our Lady of China Pastoral Mission, immigrated to the United States from China as a teen-ager, as did her brother and sister, Simo and Sandy, who attended that day’s gathering with her. The siblings described restrictions faced by Christians in their country, and also how their parents encouraged them to pray together every day.

“Here you can go to church anytime. You cherish this opportunity a lot more,” she said.

Tina Tang, a native of Hong Kong who immigrated to the United States and works as a scientific grant review officer for the National Institutes of Health, spoke of the importance of that day’s gathering.

“It’s important for us as Catholics to pass on the faith,” said Tang, a convert to Catholicism. “…We should be one, regardless of nationality, race, or language. We are all sons and daughters of God, so we should become one as a family.”

That point was echoed by Seikor Bundu, a native of Sierra Leone who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago and taught high school science and math. The member of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, serves as the president of the African Catholic Association in the archdiocese. “Unity in diversity is a norm in African society,” he said.

Emily Labbe, an immigrant from Haiti who is a retired hairdresser and a member of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park, Maryland, said, “This is great. You can learn from each other.”

Oralisa Martin, an African American who serves as the liturgy coordinator at St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, also said the gathering was needed.

“It’s important to bring cultures and people together for unity and solidarity in the Church,” she said. “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We enrich each others’ cultures. Coming together like this represents the kingdom of God in the Church. This is kingdom building. This is growing in Christ.”

Msgr. Raymond East, St. Teresa’s pastor who addressed the participants that afternoon, compared the gathering to “an experience of Pentecost in our midst,” referring to the day when, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and enabled them to preach the Gospel to people from many different lands, in their own languages.

Related upcoming events include the 16th annual Asian and Pacific Island Catholics Marian Pilgrimage on May 5 from 1-4 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. On June 2, the African Catholic Association is sponsoring a Celebration of the Saints of Africa, from 2-8 p.m. at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring.

(For more on the archdiocesan Intercultural Encounter, go to the Catholic Standard’s website at www.cathstan.org .)