BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the country's growing Latino population will have a far reaching political and religious impact. Republicans, for one, felt the sting of Hispanic voters&spos; rejection. As the numbers swell, Catholic groups are encouraging Hispanics to assert their political rights, as well as to deepen their Catholic identities. In California, the Hispanic vote was galvanized by assaults on affirmative action and immigrants&spos; rights.

“Someday, we will consider being a registered voter as important as being a baptized Catholic,” said Louis Velasquez, acting director for Hispanic ministry at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Since the 1994 vote on Proposition 187, which would have denied a range of social services to illegal immigrants, “citizenship, registering to vote and voting have become very important,” he said.

There are approximately 90,000 baptisms a year in Los Angeles, and more than 3 million Catholic Hispanics live in the See of 4.5 million. Of a total of 200 U.S. dioceses, 140 have offices of Hispanic ministries, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). The growth of parishes with Hispanic ministries has increased 300 percent to 400 percent during the last ten years, said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, associate director for the NCCB's Secretariat for Hispanic affairs.

Approximately 80-85 percent of Hispanics would identify themselves as Catholics, according to Aguilera-Titus. Ten to 15 percent of these Catholics attend weekly Mass, he said, but a substantially higher number make other regular use of a parish's services or keep traditional Catholic practices at home, usually through family prayers, altars, or images of the Virgin Mary.

In the United States, Catholic identity and life revolve around the parish, said Aguilera-Titus, a Mexico City native. But in Latin America, he said, faith life centers on the family, in part because many parishes have irregular Mass schedules, while people in rural areas often must travel long distances to go to church.

By the year 2050, according to Aguilera-Titus, Hispanics will comprise at least 20 percent of the U.S. population, making them the largest minority group in the country. Hispanics will make up a majority of the Catholic Church in America even earlier. However, there are persistent signs that native-born Americans—or Anglos, as they're called—haven't effectively welcomed Hispanics into the Church.

An editor of a Hispanic Catholic newspaper argues that Hispanics shouldn't be singled out for joining evangelical Protestant sects. “It's not just Hispanics but Anglos as well,” said Araceli Cantero, executive editor of La Voz Catolica, published by the Archdiocese of Miami. She concedes, however, that many immigrants think that “becoming a Protestant is part of getting assimilated into American culture.”

To work with Hispanics—and other Catholics—more effectively, Cantero repeats Pope John Paul II's call for parishes to break into smaller communities to evangelize. And “there shouldn't be so much concern with parish registration and envelopes as [with] developing pastoral programs to help people,” said Cantero, whose publication has a circulation of 44,000.

An Irish-American priest who ministers full-time to Hispanics concurs that most Hispanics are here “to mind their own business.” Father William Ryan, an associate pastor at St. Martin's Church in Gaithersburg, Md., works in the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. “One of the challenges is to help them to adapt to the culture in which they're living, while still retaining the best of their culture and the spirituality,” of their homeland, he said. “The drama of passing the culture onto their kids,” remains an important part of each parent's work, the priest added.

Father Ryan, whose parish includes more than 1,200 Hispanics and 500 children in Spanish-language religious education programs, heads a Hispanic Pre-Cana program in the archdiocese as well as a Spanish Catholic center. In 1990, he helped found a pregnancy center for Hispanic women to combat advertisements from abortion clinics on Spanish radio stations. Centro Tepeyac has served close to 400 women with crisis pregnancies so far this year, according to Marina Zelaya, executive director of the center. Many Hispanics are naturally pro-life because they come from family-oriented cultures, “but something seems to hit them when they cross the (U.S.) border. They get brainwashed into thinking that abortion isn't wrong,” or that it doesn't have serious consequences, said Zelaya, a native of El Salvador.

All but three of the 31 women who went through the pregnancy counseling program this year carried their babies to term. Zelaya said that 60 percent of her clientele are unmarried women, between 12- and 21-years-old. The pregnancy center also sponsors support groups dealing with issues like healthcare, immigration and legal assistance.

With Hispanics growing in number, people like Zelaya and Father Ryan need help from native-born Americans, and the bishops are responding to the call. While Father Ryan learned Spanish during a one-year stay in the Dominican Republic, many American-born priests today are learning Spanish in the seminary, according to the NCCB's Aguilera-Titus. Many seminaries have required Spanish classes, and two seminaries— including one in Miami—offer a complete course of studies in Hispanic ministry.

William Murray is based in Rockville, Md.