But whatever else is new or unfamiliar come this midnight Dec. 25, I am sure to find the fellowship of other Catholics. As a child in Denver, those Catholics were mostly Irish Americans, with a few Italian and German Americans and Hispanics thrown in the mix. But today, in almost any Catholic church, you'll find the widest gathering of ethnic and racial groups, from African, Asian and Latino immigrants to fourth- and fifth-generation Irish Americans, long the bedrock of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Catholic churches are also some of the few places you'll find poor people sitting -- and kneeling -- alongside the rich. It's a place you'll see two, three, even four generations together; from toddlers to teenagers to nonagenarians, age distinctions don't seem to apply.
No matter how humble the setting, the pews will be filled to overflowing on Christmas, with even casual Catholics feeling the need to connect once a year. Unlike the grand cathedrals of Europe, which have become hollow museums to a Catholic heritage that has ceased to exist, Catholic churches in the United States manage to attract enough worshippers in most places to require multiple services, not just on major holidays but every Sunday. Everyone, regardless of color or class, age or status is welcome. The Catholic Church is now, more than ever, truly catholic in its membership and appeal.
And that, perhaps, is the real gift of Christmas Mass -- the recognition of belonging to a community of faith. I may never find the smells and bells of the Catholic Church of my childhood -- but I will find myself at home.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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