Hispanic Catholics

‘El Futuro’ is here
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The parishioners of Saint Leander’s Church in Northern California were in conflict. As the date approached for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the revered patroness of the Mexican people, a threat that the annual parish Guadalupe celebration would be canceled loomed. That year, the December 12 feast fell on the third Sunday of Advent. Because the Sunday Mass takes precedence over feast days, the parish liturgical director had declared that no Mass for Guadalupe could be celebrated. But congregants of Hispanic descent were distraught and bewildered. How, they wondered, could a Catholic parish fail to offer their celestial mother proper honor on her feast day? After further consternation and discussion, however, the pastoral staff agreed to a compromise. A Mass in honor of Guadalupe would be celebrated at 5 A.M., early enough so as not to upset the regular Sunday Mass schedule. “How many would come at such an early hour anyway?” pastoral leaders reasoned. To their amazement, despite the cold, dark winter morning, by the time the Mass began a standing-room-only assembly had gathered to acclaim their patroness and fulfill their long-standing sacred tradition.

Such instances of misunderstanding, disagreement, and at times even open conflict are not uncommon as the Hispanic presence in U.S. Catholicism continues to expand rapidly. Of course, not all Hispanics are newcomers to the United States; in fact, Hispanic Catholics have lived in what is now the United States twice as long as the nation has existed. Subjects of the Spanish crown founded the first diocese in the “New World” at San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1513 and, at Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565, the first permanent European settlement in what is now the continental United States. But despite their long-standing presence, for much of U.S. history, Hispanics have constituted a relatively small and frequently overlooked group within U.S. Catholicism.

In the last half-century, however, the number and influence of Hispanics in the United States have increased dramatically. An influx of newcomers from such diverse locales as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina, along with ongoing Mexican immigration, has added to the ranks of an established Hispanic population composed primarily of Catholics of Mexican descent. More important, Hispanic Catholic communities, previously concentrated in New York, the Southwest, and some Midwestern cities, now extend from Seattle to Boston, from Miami to Alaska. The 2000 census revealed that Latinos in the United States number some 35.3 million,12.5 percent of the total population, and that they now compose the largest minority group in the country. Today, Hispanics are also the largest ethnic group within U.S. Catholicism; in the first decades of the new century, they will make up the majority of U.S. Catholics. An expanding Hispanic presence is part of larger demographic shifts within U.S. Catholicism. A century ago, the U.S. Catholic Church was an overwhelmingly immigrant church of Northern and Southern Europeans. Today, the church, largely run by middle-class Catholics, descendants of those immigrants, has growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian, and African immigrants, along with sizable contingents of U.S.-born Latinos, African Americans, and some Native Americans.

In response to the increasing Hispanic presence, a number of English-speaking Catholics have made considerable efforts to work with their Latino co-religionists and offer them a sense of welcome. Particularly in the decades since Vatican II, women religious, clergy, and lay leaders at the national, regional, diocesan, and parish levels have invested significant amounts of time and material resources to help develop and expand ministries with Latino Catholics. On the national level, the Hispanic-led Encuentro 2000 held in Los Angeles, which gathered more than five thousand leaders from the diverse racial and ethnic groups in U.S. Catholicism, clearly illustrates recent ministerial efforts by and with Latinos. At present, the twenty-six Hispanic bishops compose 7 percent of the U.S. hierarchy; approximately 80 percent of all dioceses and 20 percent of all parishes engage in ministry with Hispanics. These developments, which encompass initiatives to increase Spanish-language Masses, evangelization efforts, renewal movements, and feast-day celebrations, are visible signs that Catholicism in the United States is responding to this seismic shift in its demographic profile.

Today, Hispanics are also the largest ethnic group within U.S. Catholicism; in the first decades of the new century, they will make up the majority of U.S. Catholics

Despite the good intentions these success stories demonstrate, an alarming number of Hispanic Catholics feel alienated, rejected, and dissatisfied with Catholicism in the United States. One clear indication of these sentiments is Andrew Greeley’s widely cited sociological research, which shows that some sixty thousand U.S. Hispanics “defect” from their ancestral religion every year—nearly 1 million since 1973. Most of these Latinos who have left Roman Catholicism have embraced Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal and evangelical forms.

Analysis of the seeming disparity between increased Hispanic Catholic ministerial initiatives and the loss of Hispanic Catholics is varied. Many observers agree, however, that in contrast to most Catholic parishes, relatively small Protestant congregations are attractive because they provide a stronger sense of family and fellowship, a strict moral code based on clear biblical principles, a pronounced orientation toward mission, more indigenous Spanish-speaking pastors, and worship services in which Latinos can pray in their own language and cultural style.

It is not yet clear whether these Hispanic converts will persist in Pentecostal and other groups. Initial studies indicate that some Latinos maintain dual or even multiple denominational attachments; thus they may attend a Protestant congregation regularly for Sunday worship but celebrate baptisms, funerals, and other events in a Catholic parish. Other Hispanics in the United States follow the path of religious seekers; once they have left Catholicism their propensity for changing congregations or denominations again increases significantly. And some Hispanics do return to the Catholic fold, such as Mary Navarro Farr of San Antonio. After eight years in an evangelical church, Navarro Farr became upset with the anti-Catholicism in her congregation and was drawn back to a Catholic parish by “the treasure of the Eucharist, the maternal care of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the music and sacred imagery” she remembered from her childhood. Despite such examples, there is no sign that the Hispanic leakage from Catholic ranks will abate in the proximate future.

However, many analysts overlook a crucial difference experienced by Latinos in these two branches of Christianity: in Catholic communities, Hispanics may feel a sense of welcome, but in more autonomous Protestant congregations, particularly those of the Pentecostals and evangelicals, they are usually in charge.

To be sure, a number of Catholic parishes create hospitable environments in which Latinos experience a sense of familiarity and welcome that is similar to that offered in Protestant congregations. However, many analysts overlook a crucial difference experienced by Latinos in these two branches of Christianity: in Catholic communities, Hispanics may feel a sense of welcome, but in more autonomous Protestant congregations, particularly those of the Pentecostals and evangelicals, they are usually in charge. Intentionally or not, Euro- American Catholics who welcome their Hispanic sisters and brothers and practice “cultural sensitivity” frequently embody the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) message that Latinos are guests and that English-speaking Catholics are the owners of the house. While hospitality and “cultural sensitivity” are an essential first step in ministry with Hispanics, often implicit is the notion that those in power will remain in power. At best, Hispanic traditions and religious expressions will be tolerated, but the established group will control and limit the conditions of this pluralism and diversity. For example, when Hispanics attempt to make a parish feel more like home by placing one of their own sacred images in the worship space or scheduling a Spanish Mass in a “primetime” slot on Sunday morning, established parishioners frequently rebuff them with the claim that “our ancestors built this church” or “we were here first.” If Hispanics challenge such a response, their Euro-American coreligionists often perceive them as being unappreciative of the welcome offered them.

The difference between receiving hospitality and feeling at home is not a new issue in U.S. Catholicism. European immigrant groups such as the Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, and Ukrainians, among others, staked out their own turf and created “national parishes.” But the strategy of building ethnic enclave parishes has long since been abandoned in the United States. Latino Catholic leaders like Jesuit Allan Figueroa Deck bemoan this fact, noting that the national parish was a “fabulously successful approach to the pastoral care of immigrants for more than a hundred years.” Still, Figueroa Deck and other Hispanic leaders conclude that in contemporary U.S. Catholicism national parishes are “not, practically speaking, viable for a host of reasons,” especially the declining number of priests and the fiscal strain caused by abandoned inner-city national parishes of previous European immigrant groups.

In light of the impracticality of national parishes for Hispanics, many pastoral leaders assume that Hispanics will participate in existing parishes and assimilate into U.S. church and society. Indeed, as with European immigrants, a number of Hispanic Catholics learn English, move to the middle class and mainstream U.S. society, and, in many cases, subsequently practice their faith in more heterogeneous, English-speaking parishes. But unlike European immigration, which dwindled to a mere trickle after the enactment of restrictive U.S. immigration laws in the early 1920s, Hispanic immigration shows no sign of diminishing. Such factors as ongoing immigration, more consistent contact with their homeland than European émigrés who crossed the ocean, the tendency of Latinos to live in urban clusters, and their own efforts to retain their language and culture ensure that the Spanish tongue and Hispanic faith expressions will persist in U.S. Catholicism for the foreseeable future.

While this matriarchal core continues to shape Latino Catholicism, enabling it to retain a formative role in Hispanic families and communities, the lack of Latino clergy gives Hispanics decidedly less access to decision-making processes in a church with a male hierarchy.

Thus U.S. Hispanic Catholicism finds itself in a precarious position. Hispanic Catholics look to their church leaders to support and accompany them in their struggles, faith development, and religious traditions, but at the same time many sense that the institutional infrastructure for Hispanic ministry lags farther behind. The shortfall of Hispanic clergy, in particular, poses a formidable obstacle in meeting the pastoral challenge. While various European immigrant groups suffered from a shortage of compatriot priests who identified with their customs, spoke their language, and represented their interests within the structures of U.S. Catholicism, none of these groups experienced a dearth of native clergy to the same extent as today’s Hispanics.

Explanations for the lack of Hispanic vocations to the priesthood are varied, but many Latino leaders point to a history of scant educational opportunities, ethnic prejudice and outright discrimination in seminaries, strong kinship ties among Hispanics that deter prospective candidates from leaving the family circle, and cultural norms that conflict with the requirement of mandatory celibacy. Moreover, as a sociologist of religion Ana Maria Diaz-Stevens argues, Latino Catholicism has a “matriarchal core.” With the historic lack of indigenous Latino priests, Hispanic women have been consistently the primary transmitters of the faith and exercised autonomous authority in the devotional life of their people. While this matriarchal core continues to shape Latino Catholicism, enabling it to retain a formative role in Hispanic families and communities, the lack of Latino clergy gives Hispanics decidedly less access to decision-making processes in a church with a male hierarchy.

Of course, many Latinos populate territorial parishes that in effect are national parishes, since their congregations are overwhelmingly Hispanic. Not surprisingly, a number of Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, feel at home in these parishes. Similarly, Latino initiatives to establish or support diocesan Hispanic ministry offices, parish organizations, feast-day celebrations, and devotional practices help Hispanics create a home within the structures of U.S. Catholicism. The incident at Saint Leander’s in California, in which persistent Hispanic devotees organized and celebrated the traditional Guadalupe feast at their parish, illustrates this point well. Such initiatives offer some hope that Latinas and Latinos will participate increasingly in the life, faith, and leadership structures of U.S. Catholic parishes and dioceses.

The progression from hospitality to homecoming, so ably met by the national parishes for previous generations of European immigrants, remains a challenge at the heart of the future of U.S. Catholicism. Like those European immigrants who sacrificed their time, energy, and scarce material resources to build and support their own national parishes, Latinos seek a sense of ownership in their parishes, worship, pious societies, and the wider church. In their pastoral letter on Hispanic ministry (1983) and their national pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry (1987), the U.S. Catholic bishops called for more widespread and effective ministry among Hispanics. But, as many bishops themselves observe, the issue is not so much one of pastoral vision and strategy as of implementation. There is no simple formula for pastoral responses applicable to all situations and communities. Concrete implementation strategies range from incorporating Hispanic religious traditions and sacred iconography into the worship life of local communities to fostering greater parity among Latinos and other leadership groups at all levels within the church. Each local context requires creative action that enables parish and diocesan leaders to promote a sense of belonging and ownership among Latinas and Latinos. Only in this way will the Catholic Church in the United States achieve another major step in the long process to forge a viable, vital Catholic community in a pluralistic church and society.

Timothy Matovina is the author of Theologies of Guadalupe: From the Era of Conquest to Pope Francis.

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