Efren Muñoz, a university student who works at Gateway Community College, began studying his heritage years ago. He discovered that his great-grandfather from the Philippines spoke Japanese.
This, along with his interest in martial arts, spurred him to study more about Japan. He’s made pilgrimages to the country and is fascinated by its Christian history — especially St. Francis Xavier and the witness of the Japanese martyrs.
He started going to the Cultural Diversity Mass four years ago. He met his mentor, Mariko Palumbo, at a church function and has continued his study of Japan.
He and Palumbo represent Japan at the twice-a-year Diversity Mass. They represented Japan during the episcopal ordination Mass of Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares two years ago.
In a sense, Muñoz epitomizes the Diocese of Phoenix’s Cultural Diversity Team, led by Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of Ethnic Ministries.
“We’re all mixed,” Muñoz said, rejecting any ethnic label. “We’re all just human beings. We all have our interests.”
He’s interested in Japanese culture. Others — be they from Africa or from the United States — are interested in African culture. It’s a diverse team, with members hailing from Italy, Indonesia, Eritrea, Korea and Tonga.
A musical prelude to the Nov. 10 Diversity Mass at St. Agnes Parish featured all of their voices, plus African American and Latino choirs. The multicultural notes continued throughout the Mass, celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Nevares.
“Here in this House of God, we are one people, in one faith, brothers and sisters with the same Father,” the bishop said in his bilingual — that is, English and Spanish — homily.
“It is our Catholic faith that unites us in Jesus Christ,” he said, calling attention to the crucifix. “The high beam is the North, the low beam is the South, the right beam is the East, and the left beam is the West. Yet Christ is the center of us all!”
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the bishop said, is a foretaste of what heaven is going to be — “speaking to God, heart to heart.” “God doesn’t listen to the language, he listens to the heart. The core of our being is what we give to God,” Bishop Nevares said.
Following the Mass, hundreds lined up to taste the variety of dishes prepared by the Cultural Diversity Team. Muñoz and Palumbo were among the group and prepared Japanese cuisine for four hours that morning. They nearly ran out.
The two make a habit of visiting Masses celebrated in a variety of languages throughout the Phoenix Diocese. After discovering a Mass in Tagalog, Muñoz brought his mother.
“She cried,” he said. “She said, ‘this is the music of my father.’”
Palumbo and other members of the team want to expand the witness of the Diversity Mass, making sure to visit many different parishes. Bishop Nevares celebrates the Masses, which used to be an annual affair. Now, perhaps because of the delicious dishes that follow the Mass, Bishop Nevares makes sure it’s organized twice a year.
“It’s been growing,” Muñoz said. “I wonder if this is what heaven will be like.”