National Catholic Register


United States of AmÈrica

Hispanics become our largest minority

BY Eve Tushnet

March 25-31, 2001 Issue | Posted 3/25/01 at 1:00 PM


RALEIGH, N.C. — The cultural shift revealed by the startling 2000 U.S. Census data has been a fact of life in the Church for years.

A giddy girl in a frothy white quinceañera dress clutches her new Bible, rosary and medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A procession of adults and children wends its way through Southern streets hung with Christmas lights, re-enacting Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. A telephone recording says, “Para información en español, oprima seis .” A priest hearing confession struggles to remember the Spanish for, “Are you truly sorry?”

This is the Catholic Church in a nation whose largest minority is now, for the first in 2000 counted 35.3 million Hispanics — 1 out of every 8 people in the United States. There are more Hispanics in the United States today than there are people in Canada.

And there are more Hispanics than black people, for the first time: 34.7 million people identified themselves as black. Most projections of U.S. demographic trends predicted that this shift would not happen before 2010 at the earliest.

The Hispanic population — which encompasses 21 nationalities and even more indigenous ethnic groups — isn't confined to the border areas of the Southwest.

There are booming Hispanic communities in the Midwest and South, from Iowa to Georgia. The Diocese of Kansas City, Kan., began offering quinceañera (15th birthday, or coming of age) retreats last year. About 15 girls were expected; 40 showed up.

But if there are more girls having quinceañera parties, relatively few Hispanics are entering the priest-hood or becoming nuns. Overall, there is one priest for every 1,200 faithful, but for Hispanics that figure drops to one Hispanic priest for every 10,000 Hispanic parishioners.

Public Devotions

The most visible features of Hispanic Catholic life are the colorful public devotions, sometimes involving street processions. The Good Friday procession in San Antonio draws tens of thousands of participants.

But under the surface, many Hispanic leaders worry that Hispanic Catholics have not had much education in the faith. “A lot of times they say, ‘I don't know why we do it, but we do it,’” said Jesuit Father Shay Auerbach, associate pastor at St. Raphael Catholic Church in Raleigh, N.C. Father Auerbach said that the public devotions offer a great opportunity to solve that problem.

Raleigh had the fourth-largest surge in Hispanic parishioners in the past five years, mostly due to Mexican immigrants. Father Auerbach encouraged their devotions, stressing, “A lot of these popular customs are very sound theologically.”

For example, at Advent, Mexican Catholics hold a procession called posadas. The procession includes plays modeled on medieval mystery plays, recreating Mary and Joseph's journey to find a place to give birth. When the procession has “found shelter,” the community celebrates by breaking a piñata. Father Auerbach uses the occasion to teach that “the breaking of the piñata signifies breaking of hardness of heart. The sweets that come out are the graces that come from conversion.”

Even the fruit that decorates altars on All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead, signifies Christ as “the first fruits of the dead,” Father Auerbach said.

Going Beyond

Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' secretariat for Hispanic affairs, said that the next step for Hispanic ministries is to “go beyond the ‘turf’” of ministering only to other Hispanics. “In the last 15 years, Latinos, the new arrivals, are helping re-evangelize the Catholic population,” he said.

And Timothy Matovina, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, added, “When the Hispanics have a big Good Friday celebration, with a live Way of the Cross a lot of the older Catholics [of other ethnicities] see in it some of the older devotions. And a lot of the younger Catholics who never experienced this really get immersed in how much you feel the Catholic faith in this vivid, animated pageantry.”

No Longer Catholic?

The Latin American countries have been Catholic for centuries, and many Americans reflexively identify Hispanics with the Catholic faith. But that's changing fast.

One 1997 study, by sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, claimed that only 67% of U.S. Hispanics were Catholic, down from 78% in 1970. A 2000 study by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that Protestant efforts to convert Hispanic Catholics increased dramatically between 1990 and 1998.

The Bishops' conference found a number of reasons that Hispanics leave the Church. Recent immigrants may be intimidated by parish paperwork or the language barrier. In 2000, the Bishops' conference found that only a third of parishes with a significant Hispanic presence offered ministries in Spanish (other than Mass). And the number of Hispanic seminarians has declined since the 1980s.

Ronaldo Cruz asked, “Why are these Pentecostal groups successful?” He called for greater intimacy in parish life and a bigger role for the laity, since it will take a long time to significantly raise the number of Hispanic priests.

Notre Dame's Timothy Matovina added that Protestants are “often very mission-minded, entrepreneurial. They're going door to door.”

Returning to the Church

Ruben Quezada remembers those door-to-door Protestants. He was the son of Mexican immigrants, and had been raised Catholic, but he found himself unable to answer their questions about his faith. He was drawn to the vivacious singing and close community of a nondenominational church in Azusa, Calif. Most churchgoers were Hispanic, and almost all were former Catholics.

It was only through “a big coincidence” that Quezada heard the apologetics of St. Joseph's Communications, a Catholic speakers' bureau. Through the bureau, he gained an understanding of the Bible and Catholic teaching. He returned to the Church at age 28.

Father Auerbach emphasized, “Mexicans here generally want to be Catholic. If they can find a way to defend their faith and also live the popular religious side of their faith, they respond very well.”