MIAMI — Once, Hispanics gathered at the fringes of the Catholic Church in the United States, and dioceses struggled to locate a Spanish-speaking priest to celebrate the sacraments.

Now, the headlines greeting the appointments of Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., to the Miami Archdiocese and Archbishop José Gomez of San Antonio to the Los Angeles Archdiocese underscore a critical shift in priorities as outreach to Hispanics emerges as a central concern for the U.S. hierarchy and the Vatican.

The enthusiastic response to the appointment of Archbishop Wenski, 59 — a Florida native and a product of South Florida’s fully bilingual seminary program — provides an opportunity to examine the local Church’s unique history of engagement with immigrant Catholics, a narrative that foreshadows a nationwide shift in pastoral outreach.

Hispanics represent 35% of American Catholics and have contributed to an astounding 71% of the Church’s growth in this country, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Yet, Hispanics comprise just 9% of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and only 15% of recent ordinations to the priesthood, data that underscore the ongoing weakness of institutional engagement with this segment of society.

The Miami Archdiocese recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1958 — barely a year before it welcomed a flood of refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. By 1960, about 100,000 Cubans had settled in the area, and before his retirement, Bishop Coleman Carroll, the first bishop of Miami, had built more than 100 churches, two seminaries and established a parochial school system.

“In 1957, Miami was a small town, a sleepy vacation destination with few churches. The sudden arrival of Cuban immigrants created an enormous challenge for the Church. A minority of the Cubans were upper-class, but even the professionals arrived poor,” recalled Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez. Cuban-born Bishop Estevez was one of 14,000 child refugees resettled in Miami under the auspices of the Catholic Church — a massive undertaking dubbed the “Pedro Pan” program.

The first wave of Cubans were deeply Catholic, and the Church-sponsored refugee-assistance effort solidified their absolute loyalty to the local bishop. Yet, the newly formed diocese remained ill-prepared to address the full scope of their pastoral needs.

“Even as the situation in Miami stabilized over that first decade, local pastors still could not communicate in Spanish, and pastoral personnel were not qualified — linguistically or culturally — to deal with the influx,” said Bishop Estevez. “There was a lot of pain in those early years, even as the city began to welcome the steady arrival of immigrants from the rest of the Americas, and the Cubans, in turn, began to establish commercial ties in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Trained Bilingually

Archbishop Wenski was born in West Palm Beach, the son of a Polish immigrant father and a Polish-American mother, and his family typified the predominantly European roots of early American Catholicism. Yet he also represents a more recent development of vital importance for the future Church: a new generation of “Anglo” leaders thoroughly conversant with the language and culture of new immigrants — and equally committed to advancing their concerns at the statehouse or on Capitol Hill.

By the time Thomas Wenski completed his studies at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary in Miami-Dade and St. Vincent de Paul Major Seminary in Boynton Beach, the Church in Miami had dramatically reconfigured seminary formation to accommodate the altered cultural landscape.

“Since 1975, we’ve been fully bilingual and multicultural,” said Msgr. Michael Carruthers, rector of St. John Vianney Seminary for the past five years. He noted that of the 75 seminarians presently enrolled, 43% are of Hispanic origin, 47% of Anglo background, and the remaining 10% comprise men with ties to Haiti, Vietnam, the Philippines, Lebanon and Egypt.

“While seminarians pursue coursework, we encourage non-native and English speakers to take classes in both Spanish and English,” explained Msgr. Carruthers. “They participate in liturgies and communal prayer in both languages. Spiritual direction is provided in English and Spanish.”

After Archbishop Wenski was ordained in 1976, he quickly established a reputation for hard work, an affinity for the traditional piety of foreign lands, and a keen interest in the social concerns of immigrants. Before long, he was sent to Haiti to study the island’s culture and language.

When he returned to Miami in 1979, he was fluent in Creole, as well as Spanish, and he looked for opportunities to make the local Church a fulcrum for the immigrant community. The most important legacy of his early priesthood was the expansion of Little Haiti’s Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center into a dynamic forum for the community. There, the Haitians’ chamber of commerce was formed and new arrivals received literacy education along with spiritual and legal counseling. 

Archbishop Wenski moved on to direct Catholic Charities in 1996, establishing a strong relationship with Caritas Cuba, the Cuban hierarchy’s social service institution; that same year, he orchestrated a massive food shipment to Cubans left homeless by Hurricane Lily.

In 1997, he was named auxiliary bishop of Miami, and he began a rapid ascent within the USCCB, serving as chairman of the conference’s Migration Committee.

Appointed coadjutor bishop of Orlando in 2003, Bishop Wenski established a record as a strong, orthodox administrator with a knack for evangelization and budgetary matters — a skill he will need in Miami, where the local Church is awash in red ink. The bishop turned heads with his preference for motorcycles, driving a Harley-Davidson around town. He also lent his voice to the chorus of protests against the appearance of President Obama at the University of Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement.

While in Orlando, Archbishop Wenski developed an expansive outreach program for local immigrants and continued his practice of bringing their concerns to the attention of national Catholic and political leaders, chairing the USCCB’s Committee on International Policy. After Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, he was among the first U.S. Church leaders to reach the scene of the disaster. He poured his energies into organizing earthquake relief and successfully lobbying for visa extensions for Haitians in the United States.
“Bishop Wenski has been a national leader on immigration issues, particularly in defending the rights of Haitian migrants. He has never retreated from defending the human rights of the most vulnerable and will no doubt continue to do so in his new position,” said Kevin Appleby, the U.S. bishops’ director of Migration Policy.

Father Reginald Jean-Mary — the Haitian-born administrator of Miami’s Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center — who credits the bishop with fostering his priestly vocation, says the local community is still reaping the fruits of Archbishop Wenski’s early labors in Little Haiti.

“Bishop Wenski has the ability to transcend culture and to bring all the diverse elements of Miami’s melting pot together. He projects a profound love and sympathy: ‘I do know what you feel, where you come from, and you can count on my presence,’” observed Father Jean-Mary. “I always joke that he speaks Creole better than I do.”

Facing Challenges
Miami’s new archbishop will be called to employ all his pastoral gifts as he turns his attention to a host of challenges.

Despite the local Church’s vibrant history of pastoral outreach, many observers say new ideas and leadership are desperately needed: 10% of Miami’s parishes have recently been shuttered, and a number of inner-city parochial schools have been transformed into charter schools, an experiment that has largely disappointed its proponents, according to Bishop Estevez.

Leslie Pantin, president of Pantin/Beber Silverstein Public Relations and chairman of the board of Barry University, argues that Miami Archbishop John Favarola, whose resignation was accepted by Rome months before his 75th birthday, has struggled to evangelize and educate recent waves of immigrants — along with second- and third-generation Americans, who are more secular and often cannot afford increasingly high-priced parochial schools.

“When Cubans first arrived, the Church opened schools that helped bring these immigrants into the mainstream,” said Pantin. “I don’t see Catholic education playing that same role now.”

However, Pantin is pleased with Archbishop Wenski’s appointment: “We’re going in the right direction. He’s sensitive to Cubans and many other Hispanic and Haitian groups here that comprise the majority of Catholics.”

Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Kendall, Fla., and president of the National Institute of Liturgy for Hispanics, agrees that the Church “is no longer the center of the world. This is not a medieval Church. It is the salt of the earth, a leaven.”

Cuban refugees made Miami what it is today, and their tragic and tumultuous experience continues to shape the archdiocese. Today, the city and Church are still fractured by high-voltage disputes that originated in ideological battles in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other volatile Latin nations. These forces roil local parish communities and require careful diplomacy and unifying leadership that Archbishop Wenski is well placed to provide.

“Native-born Anglos can feel displaced by new arrivals and their various issues,” noted Father Sosa. “But the gift of the Church is to embrace all these groups, and Bishop Wenski understands how to meet this challenge.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.