At Cultural Heritage Mass, melting pot of parishioners worships

Dancers in the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul celebrate the diversity of the Catholic diaspora during a special mass, incorporating prayers in eight languages, on Saturday, March 19, 2016. AARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer

Kathleen Fanning grew up going to Ascension of Our Lord parish in Kensington. Dwindling attendance led Ascension to close in 2012, one of several dozen churches in the region to meet that fate.

On Saturday, the Mass she attended was packed.

Fanning processed into the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for the 19th annual Cultural Heritage Mass, which, despite parish mergers and overall declining numbers in the Catholic Church locally, showcased the diverse communities in which participation is growing.

"Everywhere you look it seems like the church is getting smaller and smaller, but then when you come here today, it seems huge, it inspires you," said Fanning, 60, who represented the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic organization.

Each year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia brings together its diverse ethnic and immigrant communities for a Mass leading into Holy Week.

On Saturday, 30 communities - beginning with the Native American Catholics and ending with the Vietnamese Apostolate - processed into the cathedral. Parishioners wore traditional garments from their native countries, eight choirs performed, and Scriptures were read in 16 languages.

"With all the divisive rhetoric that you hear, this is, I think, a symbolic answer of unity in the midst of that," said Matt Davis, director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Care for Refugees and Migrants, which helped organize the Mass.

The Rev. Vincent Farhat, of St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in South Philadelphia, leads a congregation of about 500 families, many of them migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Both tragedy and opportunity brought them here.

"Some moved here to work at Jefferson [University Hospital], others fled the war or have been personally touched by it," Farhat said. "Many of our parishioners have family members in the middle of the crisis and have no way of getting them out, so it's a very tough situation. The first place they look for, when they come to the United States, is a church, so we're here to try to help them as much as we can."

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput celebrated the Mass, which fell on the Feast of St. Joseph, who was known as "the worker." In his homily, Chaput encouraged parishioners to imitate Joseph and build a better world together.

"We're called to work with our hands and our hearts and our minds to create a new kind of world, and in the United States one of the great gifts we have that most other countries don't have is the ability to do that with people from all parts of the world," Chaput said.

"We don't hide the fact that we're different from someone else," he said. "We show our difference, our cultures, with pride and at the same time, we know we're no better than anyone else."

That message resonated especially for John Sylvester, who left Pakistan seven years ago, after he was fired from his teaching job for talking openly about being Catholic.

Sylvester, 50, now works at a gas station with the hope of becoming certified as a teacher here. He had the equivalent of a master's degree in Pakistan.

"All the different cultures are together here and they are equal," he said after the Mass. "There's nothing like this in the world, you know?"

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