HOUSTON — Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston is careful not to break the seal of secrecy when he speaks of the conclave that brought the world its first pope from Latin America. Still, he had an occasion to share his experience a few weeks ago with members of the Houston chapter of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders.

As the pastor of an archdiocese that is 40% Hispanic, the cardinal looked comfortable speaking about his Rome experience to this group, even if he doesn’t himself speak Spanish well. 

One of the details he shared from the pre-conclave general congregations for the cardinals reflects something of his own experience at home. While the cardinals considered the profile of the man to replace Benedict XVI, they recognized the Church’s whirlwind growth and large numbers in certain parts of the world, including parts of Latin America, but they also noted that the Church in these areas is scrambling to cover the vast need for catechesis and formation in the faith.

That point, made in Rome in the lead-up to the conclave, coincides with what the cardinal faces on a daily basis in Houston, with the Latin-American immigrants who form such a large percentage of his flock. 

Thus, when Cardinal DiNardo speaks about his multicultural archdiocese, he echoes sentiments expressed in varied ways by the popes. Benedict XVI once referred to the “wealth of an encounter between different cultural traditions.” The cardinal also alludes to this wealth, suggesting that we must learn to integrate our respective richness, benefit from each other and grow together.

As a case in point, Cardinal DiNardo notes the contrasting answers to parish surveys about what the local Church needs. Anglo respondents, he explains, generally express a need for more catechesis and educational activities. Hispanics, meanwhile, call for more frequent opportunities for spiritual growth — retreats and prayer groups. Cardinal DiNardo reflects that integration of these two visions is the path forward: adding a greater spiritual dimension to the catechesis and more catechesis to the retreats.


A Fast-Growing Reality

Cardinal DiNardo’s perspective and the challenges he faces guiding his multicultural flock are reflective of one of the biggest and fastest-growing realities facing the Church in the United States today. The cardinal is attentive to what is happening in Washington and is a strong advocate for fixing the broken immigration system. But for him, as for nearly every Catholic in the United States, the challenge — and the promise — of immigration is closer to home.

An overview of the statistics shows why. According to numbers posted at the U.S. bishops’ conference website, Hispanics account for 71% of the U.S. Catholic population growth since 1960. Overall, Hispanics in the United States are 68% Catholic, and with their strong numerical presence in the States, this means that nearly one-third of Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic. And while only 7% of the priests serving this Church are Hispanic, 20% of college seminarians come from this ethnicity.

While those numbers certainly don’t reveal everything — it’s also telling that less than half of U.S. Latinos younger than 29 are Catholic, meaning that the Church is so far losing the younger generation of Latinos — what the statistics do confirm is that the Church in the United States is well into a cultural shift, and one that plays out in the lives and parishes of nearly all individual Catholics.


Reciprocal Enrichment

That cultural transition is anything but easy, and yet many recognize that it holds much promise. The leader of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People has called for a shift from “multiculturalism,” or an existing side-by-side of two cultures in the same place, to “interculturalism,” which implies “reciprocal enrichment” and the “appreciation and acceptance of the positive aspects of each” culture.

In a 2011 address in Hungary, then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Antonio Vegliò declared that in this path toward integration, there must be a two-way exchange, “and not a simple exchange of what one has, but above all of what one is.”

“Natives as well as immigrants must be ready to undertake the way of dialogue and of reciprocal enrichment, which makes possible the appreciation and acceptance of the positive aspects of each,” he said.

Manny Garcia-Tuñon, a Miami-based director of communications for the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, speaks of this enrichment by proposing that the Latino community has two main strengths to offer the United States, which he summarizes in just two words: “faith and family.”

“It’s not that these two strengths are absent or even under-appreciated by other demographics in the U.S., but for Hispanics, they’re culturally ingrained,” he commented.

Garcia-Tuñon described two characteristics of faith and family — being close-knit and the visible prominence of faith — that can be seen not only in family life but also community life.

“Latino families tend to stay closer together; they typically don’t ‘move away’ or wander far from the nucleus, unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said, adding, “Faith, particularly our Catholic faith, is part of our core identity.”

Explained Garcia-Tuñon, “This is especially palpable when you attend a Spanish-language Mass anywhere in the country. There’s a genuine sense of community and togetherness, of ‘stick-togetherness’ and of fellowship, which springs, not only from sharing a common native language in a foreign land, but from sharing common values and a love for the sacraments that are so familiar to them.”


Encountering Each Other

Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, the vicar for clergy for the Archdiocese of Denver, also speaks of the mutual enrichment that can come about. And to make that happen, he said, policy statements aren’t the real solution. Encounter is. 

“When people come to know other people, when they’re no longer ’the immigrant,’ but they’re now ’Jose’ or ‘Aníbal’ or ‘Enrique,’ that changes [attitudes],” Msgr. Schmitz said. “That’s what changes people more than anything else.”

The Denver priest noted how primary-school children are leaders in this effort of “blending” or “bringing together these two groups.” 

“The hope, I believe, is with our grade-school kids,” he reflected, “because they are playing with ‘Hector.’ Hector is their friend. They go visit his house. That’s where that knowledge of one another is going to happen.”

Msgr. Schmitz recognizes the challenges facing the Church in the U.S. with the cultural shift — he notes, for example, the difficulty of training new priests to speak Spanish, even in an archdiocese like his that is 52% Hispanic. 

But after carrying out his ministry for seven years in Colombia, he now speaks with longing of his days pastoring the Latino community. Like Garcia-Tuñon and Cardinal DiNardo, he is quick to point out their strengths, naming specifically the virtue of generosity, which he illustrates with this anecdote:

“[Hispanics] are extremely generous. When you ask the people to do something, they graciously and excitedly do it [as can be] demonstrated by small incidences in my life as a pastor in a Hispanic parish: I had some concrete that was breaking apart, and I asked one of the men in the parish if he knew anybody who could fix this kind of stuff. And he said, 'Sure, Father. Almost any Mexican can do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, could you talk to somebody and then let me know?’ And I figured I would hear from him the following week or something like that. About two hours later, he showed up and he said, ‘Okay. They’re out here.’ There’s a generosity of spirit and of giving that just ... it’s overwhelming sometimes.”

“I tell the Hispanic community all the time they taught me how to be a priest,” Msgr. Schmitz shared. “I learned what it means ... you know, you learn in your head. I think they taught my heart how to be a priest. So I love them very much.”

Register correspondent Kathleen Naab writes from Houston,

where she covers news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.