CNS Lecture: Many Cultures, One Church


The Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College hosted sociologist Thomas Landy for his lecture “What Do We Really Mean When We Talk About a Global Church?” The event took place in the Fort Howard Theatre of the Bemis International Center at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26.

Landy is the director of the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, as well as a member of the college’s department of sociology and anthropology.

In 1992 Landy founded Collegium, an organization that brings together over 65 Catholic universities during a summer program to discuss the Catholic intellectual tradition. St. Norbert College participates in the event that, as Landy put it, “brings heady academics to its heart and roots and soul.”

Landy’s lecture came about due to the lack of research and information on global Catholicism. While American Catholics at most make up 7 percent of Catholics worldwide, most assume that people practice the religion in a very similar way in every country. Landy wanted to fix this situation.

After traveling across the world, he launched Catholics and Cultures, an organization and website dedicated to the international practice of Catholicism. The website was launched just three weeks ago and received 20,000 hits in its first week.

Landy first covered Catholics in India. Even though Catholicism may seem like a recent arrival in the nation, Christianity in India is said to have been established by the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE (AD) and evidence for Christian practice goes back to around 350 CE. Three branches of the Catholic Church exist in southern India and their roughly 20 million members distinguish themselves by their extreme religious devotion.

“I’d say India is the most religious place I’ve been to on earth,” said Landy.

Shrines dedicated to Jesus, Mary and the saints stand only a few miles apart in the cities and towns of southern India and around half of their visitors practice Hinduism. Each of the many parishes hold feast days for their patron saint that often last nine days or more. A church dedicated to Mary in the Bay of Bengal attracts over one million visitors each year and has earned the nickname “The Lourdes of the East.”

Landy stated that despite India’s increasing modernization, Catholics and people of other religions remain as devout as ever, tearing down old churches to build new, larger ones and holding hours-long, brightly colored masses that would confuse most American Catholics.

Landy moved to Ethiopia next. Although different from Indian Catholics, the approximately one million Ethiopian Catholics are equally unlike American Catholics. Christianity here dates back to the first century and is heavily influenced by Judaism and the Jewish people’s history. As a result, Ethiopian Catholics observe kosher food rules and observe 230 fast days throughout the year.

The Ethiopian Ge’ez Rite of the mass takes up to three hours, with priests chanting for one to two hours before the service and women ululating when the Eucharist is consecrated. The biggest feast day for Ethiopians is Meskel. Yellow flowers called “meskel” pop up at the end of the rainy season in Ethiopia and Catholics use their appearance to celebrate the turn in weather. At a square built in the capital of Addis Ababa just for the festival, Ethiopians put meskel flowers on top of a tall mound of hay and then set the whole pile on fire.

Landy visited El Salvador last. Here, cofradías, or confraternities dedicated to a particular saint, govern the liturgical year for Catholics. Catholicism here is very focused on the family and on helping them and the community.

Landy ended his lecture by saying that most of the categories we have for Catholicism are useless in other countries.

“So many things we theorize about fall apart in the context of the real situation,” he stated.

When asked what united the global Church, Landy responded, “I can’t say I have a single answer.”

He compared the Catholic Church to a complex Venn diagram, where some cultures share many, but not all, traits and other cultures have only a few characteristics in common.

Another audience member asked if the Vatican and Catholic leaders were aware of the vast diversity in the Church. Landy replied that they are.

“If you’re in Rome, you’re in the best position possible,” he said, because seminarians and nuns come from all over the world to Rome with their unique faith traditions.

Landy hopes that Catholics and Culture and other research into global Catholicism will help American Catholics better understand the cultures and practices of fellow believers.


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