.- Immigration is an opportunity and a key to American renewal because it helps bring to light the Christian, Catholic missionaries’ “heritage of holiness and service,” Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles told a gathering of Catholic leaders and laity.
“America is intended to be a place of encounter with the living Jesus Christ,” the archbishop said. “This was the motivation of the missionaries who came here first. America’s national character and spirit are deeply marked by the Gospel values they brought to this land.”
Archbishop Gomez presented his talk Thursday at the Napa Institute's first annual “Catholics in the Next America” conference at the Napa Valley’s Meritage Resort & Spa in California.
The meeting brought together 200 Catholic leaders, including bishops, priests, religious and lay people, to discuss the future of the Church in an increasingly secular culture and to enjoy time for fellowship.
The archbishop said that although America was founded by Christians, it has become home to “an amazing diversity” of cultures and religions that flourishes “precisely because our nation’s founders had a Christian vision of the human person, freedom and truth.”
But America is changing because of globalization, threats from abroad, and internal cultural forces.
“We have an elite culture — in government, the media and academia — that is openly hostile to religious faith,” he continued. “America is becoming a fundamentally different country. It is time for all of us to recognize this — no matter what our position is on the political issue of immigration.”
The Los Angeles archbishop described the country’s immigration situation as part of a set of larger questions about America’s national identity and destiny. Catholics must answer these questions “in light of God’s plan for the nations.”
The archbishop said immigrants are “people of energy and aspiration” who are “not afraid of hard work or sacrifice.”
“The vast majority of them believe in Jesus Christ and love our Catholic Church. They share traditional American values of faith, family and community,” he said. “That is why I believe our immigrant brothers and sisters are the key to American renewal. And we all know that America is in need of renewal — economic and political, but also spiritual, moral and cultural renewal.”
The archbishop said that Americans have largely forgotten their history or only know an incomplete version that leads to “the wrong assumptions about American identity and culture.”
While the New England-focused American history tells the story of “great men” like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and also of “great documents” like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, it is not the entire story.
“When we forget our country’s roots in the Hispanic-Catholic mission to the new world, we end up with distorted ideas about our national identity,” Archbishop Gomez said. “We end up with the idea that Americans are descended from only white Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.”
The “whole story” about America starts in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s in California. This story also centers on New Spain and teaches that “before this land had a name its inhabitants were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
“The people of this land were called Christians before they were called Americans. And they were called this name in the Spanish, French and English tongues,” Archbishop Gomez said. “(L)ong before the Boston Tea Party, Catholic missionaries were celebrating the holy Mass on the soil of this continent … Immigrant missionaries were naming this continent’s rivers and mountains and territories for saints, sacraments and articles of the faith.”
“Before there were houses in this land, there were altars,” he continued. “This is the missing piece of American history. And today more than ever, we need to know this heritage of holiness and service — especially as American Catholics.”
Archbishop Gomez contended that forgetting these other roots has lead to bad episodes in history, such as the mistreatment of Native Americans, slavery, outbreaks of nativism and anti-Catholicism.
He worried that the political debates over immigration signals a new period of nativism.
However, he urged American Catholics to make their own contributions to America through the way they live their faith in Jesus Christ.
“The ‘Next America’ will be determined by the choices we make as Christian disciples and as American citizens. By our attitudes and actions, by the decisions we make, we are writing the next chapters of our American story,” he said.