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Posted February 13, 2008

(What follows is the text of a speech given Jan. 13, 2008, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Ga. The archbishop delivered the seminary’s 2008 Carl J. Peter Lecture.)

…each one heard them speaking in the native language of each (Acts 2:6)

Catholic Preaching in the Multicultural Context of the United States of America

By Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Ga.


The invitation which Msgr. Checchio graciously extended to me and that brings me once again to this venerable Roman seminary proposed as the general topic, “Preaching in a Multicultural Church – Highlighting the Latino, African-American and Asian Communities.” It is a daunting task, but the challenge itself is rooted in the very thing we have come to call “the American experiment” — the grand assembly of very diverse peoples who hope to live and to work and to prosper together as one nation in a manner perhaps unprecedented in human history. Even more fundamentally, the challenge is embedded in the very nature of the Catholic Church. To speak of a multicultural church is itself a redundancy. Is there any other kind of church in our Catholic tradition? Speaking of the church’s catholicity or universality, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed:

“The one People of God is accordingly present in all the nations of the earth, since its citizens, who are taken from all nations, are of a kingdom whose nature is not earthly but heavenly. All the faithful scattered throughout the world are in communion with each other in the Holy Spirit so that ‘he who dwells in Rome knows those in the most distant parts to be his members’” (“Lumen Gentium,” 13).

I propose to address the topic Catholic preaching in the United States’ multicultural context in several stages. First we must identify the universal task of preaching that is within and beyond differences. Then we need to note some misunderstandings about preaching in a multicultural context. Finally we must consider ourselves, the preachers and the bearers of God’s good news, who stand and live and preach at the intersection of human diversity and the enduring, transforming Word of God.

The Universal Task of Preaching Reflected in United States Experience Today

“I believed, therefore I spoke” (2 Cor: 4).

There is a conspicuous hunger in the land for the Word of God. Examples abound of the drift that people feel in their lives. The contrast between the assured and confident secular rhetoric of public discourse and the personal anguish felt in the lives of so many people who seem directionless. Only God’s Word can make a breakthrough. People are hungry for God’s Word, but may not even know of their own hunger.

As priests, our primum officium is the proclamation of the Word. This is a life giving Word. It is truly God’s Word. Ultimately, it is the Word made flesh and come to dwell among us.

Do we know the power of this Word? Can we imagine the possibilities of our own proclamation? Do we know the difference between information, which drives our lives in so many ways, and in truth, which alone can give meaning and direction to life? Do we know the difference between data, bits and pieces, here and there, and wisdom, to know how the particulars all fit into the plan and mystery of God? Or, are we co-opted by our time and culture?

Do we have enough confidence in ourselves as ambassadors of Christ to present ourselves as sources of wisdom? The culture and even our most steadfast people do not instinctively turn to us as “wisdom figures.” They are much more likely to go to Oprah or Dr. Phil or a blog-spot. We may have allowed our calling as proclaimers of God’s truth and wisdom to be subverted by surrendering to the secular take on us: well-intentioned, rather backward, rarely inspired, at best platitudinous agents of an institution whose day is past, way past relevance.

In the face of all this, do we entertain the arrogance that we are the first generation of priests and bishops to feel utterly overwhelmed, with all the odds against us? Or, haven’t we read Paul or taken him seriously? In some sense, it is the perennial state of any preacher to work against the odds, to be confronted with massive crises. In the face of this, what shall be our source of confidence so that we can reclaim the passion, the conviction and the imagination to proclaim the Word of truth to a world so obsessed with itself and so desperately in need of the saving Word?

Perhaps, the key is in the phrase that Paul borrows from the prophet Habakkuk: “I believed and, therefore, I spoke.” It begins with our basic faith. That is the only foundation. To pay attention to what we believe, how we believe, in whom we believe – this is not spiritual narcissism. It is the foundation of ministry and life in service to others. It is out of our faith that we can credibly speak and effectively communicate the Word of life.

“... that which we have heard and seen and touched concerning the Word of life, that we proclaim to you” (1 John 1:1).

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of the same dynamic in a phrase which is the motto of the Dominicans and the description of preaching in the Second Vatican Council, contemplata aliis tradere.

The challenge is not the development of new skills – although these may be very useful – nor the acquisition of additional information – although this can also serve good purposes. The real challenge is a converted heart, a continuing turning heart that believes more and more deeply and from that belief dares to speak.

This is the global or universal vision of preaching God’s Word. This provides us with the context to understand the particular ways that preaching needs to be tailored to multicultural contexts. Here we can begin to look at some specific issues as a preacher seeks to proclaim God’s Word in the Latino, African-American and Asian communities.

Correcting Misconceptions about Preaching in a Multicultural Context

To speak of the Latino, African-American and Asian communities triggers in many people the notion of “minorities,” a Word that connotes for many a condition of poverty, a lack of education and poor integration into mainstream U.S. culture. Of course, the facts present a far more multifarious situation. Can you think of Cuban professionals in Miami as uneducated? Or members of the Black bourgeoisie – a group that has been around for quite a while – as living in abject poverty? Or Korean software or hardware engineers in Silicon Valley as poorly integrated into U.S. culture? Still, the identification of the Latino, African-American and Asian communities as a context for preaching means a lingering set of stereotypes. And so there needs to be some work of correction and clarification in order to arrive at our goal: effective preaching in these communities.

Let us consider some of these misconceptions that stand in patent need of correction. In the process of correcting misconceptions, we will actually move constructively toward understanding the necessary elements for effective preaching in the United States in a multicultural context.

1. Preaching in a multicultural context means those addressed are primarily victims of inequity, discrimination, and oppression.

Of course, Latinos, African-Americans and Asians have been victims. To deny that is to fly in the face of history. The wrongs inflicted on these communities have ranged from the horrors of slavery to a denial of ordinary civil rights to subtle yet effective discrimination that has constructed glass ceilings and limited social and economic advancement. Preaching that highlights the Exodus paradigm from slavery to freedom definitively gained through the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ must always have a place in the proclamation of God’s Word to people whose dignity has been denied. Preaching that highlights the call to justice must always have a place in the proclamation to people whose history and sometimes current moment includes injustice.

At the same time, to identify members of these communities primarily or solely on the basis of victimization can also be a fundamental denial of our dignity. In each one of these communities, people, real people, have claimed agency for their lives. Often against great odds and at great cost they have made decisions and constructed their lives both for themselves and their children. They have been mindful of past wrongs, but even more so they have high hopes that draw them into a future. Preaching must take this into account and proclaim God’s gracious empowerment of his sons and daughters. Similarly, this preaching must insist on the revolutionary power of forgiveness and reconciliation — always, of course, led forward by Christ, who “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14).

2. Preaching in a multicultural context means speaking to people who are exotic, “not at all like us.”

The fact that people come from different traditions and have a particular cultural background does not automatically make them exotic, like some rare or unusual species of bird, bug or flower. Inside of difference, as I have already affirmed, there is a universal human spirit. That spirit confronts the questions and the struggles and the yearnings of all humanity. Death, work, family life, time, friendship, alienation and reconciliation – these universal realities link us in a common bond of human experience. Additionally, there is the shared experience of U.S. culture.

Although we can strongly and securely affirm this common bond of common human experience, within that commonality there is a grace of difference. To use scholastic categories, it may not be essential difference. Perhaps it is accidental difference. It is, nonetheless, difference. And that difference within common human experience may be a matter of an expression, a symbol, a gesture, a local connection, a particular historical memory, a turn of phrase or whatever. Clearly, effectively preaching will take note of such differences. Taking note, however, presumes a sympathetic listening to others, a curiosity about their particular way of encountering or expressing the common ground of our human experience. Is this not the pattern of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman? At Jacob’s well, in a specific context of Jewish-Samaritan relationships (or hostility), with an evocation of different ways of worship on Zion or on Gerazim – with all these in mind Jesus preaches a Word that will produce life-giving water and conversion in this woman.

3. Preaching in a multicultural context ought not to be too intellectually demanding. In fact, it is both appropriate and necessary to “downshift” in presenting the Gospel, since many people in these communities have limited education and limited backgrounds.

This misconception is really a dangerous fallacy. It assumes that complex understandings and expressions of human experience and of the gift of faith are only possible in a circumscribed context that belongs to us in the mainstream or dominant cultural pattern. The Jesuit scholar Walter Ong in his classic text “Orality and Literacy” explored the differences between oral and literate cultures. It turns out that an oral culture is eminently capable of complex understanding and expression of reality. Think of the long oral history of “The Iliad” or, within our own religious tradition, the oral tradition of the apostolic preaching that precedes its textual codification in the New Testament.

This misconception is also a dangerous fallacy in another sense. It assumes that the questions and the yearnings of people who do not share our exact cultural framework are not quite as complex or agonizing or nuanced as our own. And that is surely not the case, although this mentality has underwritten colonization. It makes it easier to subjugate those whom we consider inferior or deficient – intellectually, culturally, even psychologically and possibly religiously.

Preachers who would bring God’s Word to a community must understand its particular forms of complexity and subtlety, especially when they differ from those of the preachers. For example, how does the strong sense of orality shape with its own complexity and nuance communications in the African-American community? How does the fusion in Mexican culture, according to Octavio Paz in “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” of Iberian expressiveness and Indian introverted introspection shape the way one must engage complexity and nuance in preaching for that community? How does the sense of integral and holistic symbolic expression, evidenced in many Asian cultures in their styles of calligraphy, shape the proclamation of the Word in these communities?

Do not be deceived, my young brothers. There is far more complexity than we can imagine beyond a mainstream American format. Preachers ignore that fact at their own peril and at the risk of diminishing the power of the Word they proclaim.

4. In the preaching event, roles are clearly and irrevocably defined: We are the preachers or teachers, and they are learners.

When we walk into a new community, one that is not our own, we may hesitate and have our own self-doubts, even at an unconscious level. One remedy, again not even consciously embraced, is to assert within ourselves a clarity of our role in the face of the unclear situation we are about to encounter. Let me cite an example. I am called to preach to a Vietnamese community. I want to preach well so that God’s Word truly goes out to these good people for whom I have great and deep affection. I know enough to know that I cannot possibly grasp in full measure the culture and situation of this community. I cannot fully understand their sense of displacement. I cannot fully understand the rich blend of Confucian tradition and Christianity that belongs to them. I cannot fully understand elements of French Catholicism inherited from the missionaries who first proclaimed the Word and how those elements took root in the new soil of Vietnam. I cannot fully understand what it is like to live as a Christian minority in a Buddhist majority. I cannot fully understand the experience of direct government persecution and oppression of the church. There is so much I cannot know nor fully understand as I stand before these faithful Catholic people, whose faith has been proven in so many ways.

In this lack of clarity, there is always the temptation to seize some clarity at all costs, even if it is not true clarity. I can, for example, narrowly understand the roles we play in the preaching encounter. I preach and teach, and they listen and learn. In crossing over to preach in cultural contexts other than our own, the roles are not so clearly and irrevocably defined. Of course, because I am their deacon, priest or bishop, I am there to preach God’s Word, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Of course, I pray that they will receive that Word and message, and be confirmed in their discipleship. There is, however, more to this encounter. Especially in the cross-cultural context, the preacher must also listen and learn. Despite our own propensity to claim a clear role in the preaching process, there is more to the story than we would expect.

As he often is, St. Paul is instructive in this matter of preachers finding themselves in role reversals. Recall his attempt to capture the good news of Jesus Christ by employing the tactics of pagan wisdom, as he cited Greek philosophers and poets in his speech in the Areopagus of Athens in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 17. He was encountering Greek culture and trying to play to the crowd as he knew it. He was less than spectacularly successful, but he learned from his misfortune. After Athens he went to Corinth for another encounter with Greek culture, although of a somewhat different hue. Paul has preached in Athens and in Corinth. He has been the teacher. Paul has also learned in the method. So he could reminisce with the Corinthians about the change in his preaching that came about because of this learning: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty Words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible Words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

5. When we preach in a cultural context that is not our own, we must tread softly. It is important that we consistently affirm the cultural and faith-cultural experiences of those to whom we speak.

This is a dangerous and truly unhelpful perception. Besides that, it is extraordinarily patronizing. If preachers must feel fettered by cultural niceties, they can never utter a prophetic Word. They can never challenge the culture. Still we know better. We know that cultures, all cultures, are in need of the conversion that only the truth of Christ offers. This is a powerful insight that comes from the Second Vatican Council and has been developed in the teaching of our recent Holy Fathers.

A culture that sanctions violence or the diminishment of women, or a culture that rigidly protects the interests of moneyed or powerful classes, or a culture that encourages its people to isolate themselves from others to maintain cultural purity – cultural attitudes of this kind deserve and need serious critique. They are contrapuntal to Christian values. Obviously, a preacher ought not to begin with a prophetic critique. Still, having come to know the people and the culture, preachers must let the Gospel speak its Word directly and pointedly, like the two-edged sword that it has always been.

To remain in the realm of uncritical affirmation in the face of a given culture’s defects or variance from the spirit of the Gospel is both patronizing and demeaning. Such a position suggests that people really cannot change, that the conversion of individuals and cultures is not fully possible. That is not our Catholic faith. Prophetic critique is always rooted in hope that by God’s grace people and cultures can change.

6. When we preach in a multicultural context and we encounter painful divisions within a culture or in relationship to the dominant or mainstream culture, these divisions are best understood through the lens of sociology, anthropology or history.

There is some truth in this assumption. History, for example, helps us understand why racial divisions and antagonisms continue to exist in the United States. Anthropology can cast light on the fusion of Iberian and indigenous cultures that has shaped so much of Latin America but has also left its own marks of social division and economic exploitation. Sociology can help to explain the strange reception of Asians by mainstream U.S. society, a mixture of admiration for accomplishments, suspicion of difference and, at times, unvarnished hostility.

As much as sociology, anthropology, history and other allied fields of inquiry can identify the sources of difference and, more importantly, the sources of unhealthy division, they are incomplete. The preacher of the Word of God needs more, and it is an understanding in faith of the roots of division and hostility that the people we face in the pulpit must face in the course of their daily life.

In faith we know that these divisions and hostilities are not simply the inevitable result of historical and cultural processes. They are part of the “mysterium iniquitatis.” More specifically and more bluntly, they are the work of the devil. You know that the diabolos is the one who divides, splits and splinters. The very name comes from “dia-ballein,” a word that means splitting asunder. From the very beginning of human history in the garden, the evil one has sought to separate us from God and from each other.

Preachers who directly face divisions and hostilities or who can register their impact on the lives of people to whom they preach are well advised to turn to the Letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Note, too, as the great German exegete Heinrich Schlier did in his book “Powers and Principalities in the New Testament,” that the evil forces of division not only seek sway over individuals but insinuate themselves into the very social structures and institutions that we depend on.

Although every context of preaching calls preachers to expose the divisive tactics of the evil one, the matter may be even more pressing in the context of multicultural preaching, especially in the United States with our sad history of divisions. At the same time, preachers must return to the magnificent Pauline reflection on the reconciling power of Jesus Christ that gives us victory over all that would divide and diminish us. We read: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:13-14).

To know “what we are up against” and to know God’s remedy in the saving and reconciling work of Jesus Christ must be part of the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:13) that preachers in multicultural contexts put on.

The Person of the Preacher: A Believer

In this last part of my presentation I want to return to Paul’s citation of the prophet Habakkuk in Second Corinthians: “I believed, therefore I spoke.” Although God’s Word can surely take root even through the instrumentality of a preacher whose faith is tepid, that is not what God wants nor is it the ordinary way that the Word of God effectively enters into the hearts of listeners. God wants, and we also want, preachers of faith, who are convincing because they are convinced. Every context needs believing preachers. And in light of our theme of preaching in a multicultural context, the faith of the preacher plays out in its own special way.

1. If the preacher believes and speaks from faith, God’s Word will find a home in the heart of the listeners.

There is a venerable scholastic adage, “quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur,” whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. When we apply this to the situation of preaching in a multicultural context, especially if the preacher comes from a context other than the one in which he is preaching, I understand the process in this way. If the preacher truly, deeply and passionately embraces the Word he will share with others in faith, then that Word will go out from him, and it will find a home in the hearts of those who listen. The Word itself and the graced hearts of the listeners will adapt the preaching so that it becomes “hearable” in a given context. Of course, whatever useful human adaptations can be made ought to be made. My point is that the heart of the matter is faith speaking to faith. If that basic connection is established, the particulars of adaptation will follow and not always because of the efforts of the preacher but, more significantly, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the story of Paul the preacher and Lydia of Thyatira the receiver of that preaching: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

2. If the preacher is well grounded in the cognitive dimensions of faith, he will be particularly effective in a multicultural context.

Faith, as you know, is a complex reality that embraces many dimensions. There is a cognitive dimension — what we believe. There is a fiducial, trusting dimension — our loving surrender into God’s hands. This latter dimension seems to incorporate the more affective aspects of our existence. It may seem strange to you that I give prominence to the cognitive dimension of faith in a multicultural context. If, for example, you consider preaching in the African-American community, you may imagine a passionate and emotional preacher connecting with a congregation in quite an emotional way and evoking an emotional response from that same congregation. The same might be true of a Hispanic context, especially of the more charismatic kind. So why do I think that the cognitive dimension of faith, especially as it is appropriated by the preacher, is so important? The cognitive dimension of faith embodies what we believe. That “what” is really the history of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We believe that he came among us as one like us in all things but sin. We believe that he died for our sins, that he rose for our justification, that he will come again in glory. These affirmations of faith in Jesus Christ are certainly about him, but they are also about us. The cognitive dimension of faith captures the shared history that we have with each other in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. If unity, reconciliation and linkage across different cultural experiences is a significant goal for preachers in multicultural contexts, then they can do no better than to summon the common saving history that we all have in Jesus Christ and that binds us as one.

3. If the preacher believes with a faith that has consequences, he will be all the more effective in a multicultural context that demands actions beyond words.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has recalled for us the central conviction of our faith in God: “Deus caritas est,” God is love. The same letter from which these holy words are drawn clearly indicates that there are consequences of embracing faith in God who is love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. … Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 Jn. 4:16b, 20-21).

Because those to whom we preach in a multicultural context are intertwined in some of the more complex historical and social relationships among themselves and with others outside of their context, it is not enough to love “in Word or speech, but [also] in truth and action” (1 Jn. 3:18). A consequential faith means a faith ready to make decisions, especially in service of one another. To communicate this kind of faith requires that the preacher be convinced of it.

The consequences of faith certainly embrace decisions especially for service, but they are not limited to these alone. Faith also leads to the praise and thanksgiving of God pre-eminently celebrated in the liturgy of the church. It is not accidental that both in multicultural contexts and contexts in which believers have felt somehow marginalized, liturgy is of decisive importance. And preachers in multicultural contexts must be aware that they proclaim faith in such a way that people are led to the praise and thanksgiving of God who has led them this far by faith.


In the course of these reflections, I feel that I have touched on a few key points of concern for those who preach in a multicultural context or aspire to do so. Much, much more could be said. More could be said about the universal task of preaching, more could be said about the misunderstandings of preaching in a multicultural context and the construction of corrected perspectives, and more could be said about the person of the preacher. Still, I hope that what I have offered may stimulate your own thinking and reflection and prayer.

Let me leave you with the image of one extraordinary person who proclaimed the wonders of the Lord. It is the mother of the Lord, who in her “Magnificat” crossed back to the past narrative and history of God’s great deeds. And she stretched and pressed ahead into the future across all generations and cultures to affirm the reliable and faithful promise of God. For she understood that the One she bore within her womb was destined to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to … Israel” (Lk. 2:32). She understood that her son crossed over all cultures and times and peoples, and brought them together as one. In Paul’s words, “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:11).

It is no wonder, then, that when the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary was poured out upon apostolic preachers at Pentecost, they were able to preach to diverse people and to be understood with singular clarity: “Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:6) And that is still possible today, my young brothers, even for us. Amen!