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.