National Catholic Register


The Hispanic Challenge

Spirit-Filled Latinos Are Changing the Church in America

BY Steve Weatherbe

December 5-18, 2010 Issue | Posted 11/29/10 at 3:55 PM


WASHINGTON — When a half dozen Hispanic bishops visited Washington this September in a visit that specifically targeted the (record) 25 Hispanic members of Congress, it signaled the growing presence and influence of Latinos in both political and religious spheres.

The midterm elections saw an additional Hispanic elected to the U.S. Senate, and, for the first time ever, three Hispanic governors, all Republicans.

Hispanics, says Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Cultural Diversity, already comprise the nation’s largest ethnic minority at 48.5 million (plus 4 million Puerto Ricans). Aguilera-Titus says the Hispanic influx is already having a powerful influence that can only grow.

The U.S. Church has 45 Hispanic bishops, serving in dioceses from Yakima, Wash., to New Jersey, and two archbishops, including Coadjutor Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who led the capital junket. Of five priority policy initiatives identified recently by the USCCB, two are led by Hispanic bishops.

“Already 50% of Catholics under the age of 29 are Hispanic,” Aguilera-Titus says. When these young Catholics become lay leaders of their parishes, as well as priests and bishops, their influence will grow even more. “Hispanics are becoming the majority.”

One big difference Hispanics bring with them is their openness to the Holy Spirit: “Between 45% and 50% say they have had a born-again experience or have some relationship with the charismatic movement.”

The Pew Hispanic Center, part of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found in its 2007 study “Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion” that more than half of Hispanic Americans self-identify as charismatic. “Hispanics are transforming the nation’s religious landscape, especially the Catholic Church, not only because of their growing numbers but also because they are practicing a distinctive form of Christianity,” the study says.

Father Carlos Martins of the Catholic Charismatic Center in Houston confirms that, while the Holy Spirit manifested itself among American Catholics of European descent 20 to 30 years ago, “We are seeing radically powerful conversions among Hispanics today.” Father Martins reports reconciliation sessions at the center that see five or more priests hearing confessions for five hours straight apiece. “People have been away from confession from 20 to 50 years. The Hispanic ministry is taking off.”

As well, because Hispanics are low-income earners and often illegal immigrants, they challenge the Catholic Church to live out its social justice traditions as it did in the 1800s and early 1900s, defending working-class Irish, German, Italian and Polish immigrants from racial and religious discrimination and unjust labor conditions.

Social justice issues were at the fore with the Washington delegation. The bishops called for housing for the poor, a national health-insurance plan and programs encouraging socially disadvantaged to stay in school.

But first on the agenda was immigration policy reform: provisions of ways for illegal immigrants to gain legal status and a restoration of due process for immigrant and refugee claims removed by 1996 legislation.

The 2007 “Changing Faiths” study from the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that Hispanics are more open than other Americans to politically activist clergy. “Most Latinos view the pulpit as an appropriate place to address social and political concerns,” it said. “Most Latinos see religion as a moral compass to guide their political thinking, and they expect the same of their political leaders.”

A third characteristic of Hispanics is their strong devotion to Mary. “In our own church we now have an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Aguilera-Titus. “She is there for the Masses said in English as well as Spanish. She is a presence.”

When the American Catholic bishops developed their National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry in 1987, notes Aguilera-Titus, “they said the way to respond was for the Church to set an example of justice, which we see in its strong voice on fair labor and immigration laws.”

But before that, he says, three Church leaders, Archbishop Robert Lucey in San Antonio, and Cardinals Francis Spellman of New York and Samuel Stritch of Chicago, led the U.S. Church in a significant departure from the previous “national” model of ministering to immigrants by providing each ethnic group with its own parishes and priests.

What the trio pioneered for Hispanics — Puerto Ricans in New York City and Mexicans in the other two cities — was a Church that integrated them but did not attempt to assimilate. That is, they were provided their own Masses and services in Spanish in existing parishes and not expected to take the Anglo version of Catholicism as a given. And this, says Aguilera-Titus, is what is being attempted across some 4,200 parishes nationwide, where Spanish Masses are being offered by 3,000-plus Hispanic priests, while Masses in English continue to be celebrated.

“The first impact is sheer numbers. The newcomers really put pressure on schedule, the facilities, the resources,” said Titus-Aguilera. “It’s like having two families under the same roof.” But the newcomers don’t just bring logistical problems, “they provide an immediate boost, a vibrancy, income. They come to feel ownership.” Parishes with dwindling, aging congregations gradually fill up with new, young families.

The second impact hits when the Hispanics take leadership roles, and a third comes when they help the existing congregation experience “the Catholic” or universal Church by showing how the faith is lived by Hispanics.

Aguilera-Titus relates how his own parish in Washington, D.C., serves four different ethnic groups with Masses in English, French, Spanish and even one serving African-Americans, but at major feasts brings the whole parish together for a single celebration to which all contribute.

Aguilera-Titus says that Hispanic-oriented services and devotions are essential to attracting immigrants to the Church. If the Mass isn’t in Spanish, they won’t come.

The Pew Hispanic Center survey bears this out. “While most predominant among the foreign-born and Spanish speakers, Hispanic-oriented worship is also prevalent among native-born and English-speaking Latinos,” it reports in “Changing Faiths.” As with earlier waves of immigrants, says Aguilera-Titus, and even without exclusively ethnic or “national” memberships, Catholic churches are still providing a much-needed ethnic gathering place and mutual support network.

But what the new multicultural parishes do even better than the old, national model, he adds, is to help integrate newcomers into American culture — and, at the same time, remind the resident American parishioners of the “universality” of the Catholic Church.

What concerns Archbishop Gomez is the low number of Hispanic children in parochial schools and secularization. In a talk given at Boston College in 2009, “Evangelization, Education and the Hispanic Catholic Future,” and available on the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s website, he noted an alarming drop in the share of U.S. Hispanics who consider themselves Catholic from nearly 100% to 58% over the past two decades. At the same time, Protestantism is up, and so are the “Nones” who declare they have no religion.

Pressure to Fit in

While he identified the so-called “prosperity gospel” as an appealing idea to many Latin Americans, he said the main enemy of Hispanic Catholicism was an increasing secularization of American culture and the understandable desire of new immigrants to fit into it.

The pressure to fit in, he said, has led many Americans — not just Hispanic immigrants — to abandon their faith and others to privatize it. The Church, he said, must respond by studying the culture carefully, and by preaching the full Gospel of Jesus Christ, that brings them into “a relationship with the living God, a relationship that Christ himself intended … that we have through him, with him and in him — in his Church.”

It must be a Gospel, he added, that preaches justice for the poor. The Church must therefore speak out against unjust immigration laws, racism and the creation of a permanent Hispanic underclass.

The 2008 report “U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008: Growth, Diversity & Transformation” by Ariela Keysor and Barry Kosmin of Trinity College confirms Archbishop Gomez’s observations: “Latinos are not becoming Pentecostals in large numbers, though there was some concern a few years. The biggest belief group after Catholics is Nones — people with no religious affiliation.” Both the middle-aged males and the young are less religious than other sectors of the Hispanic population.

Kosmin told the Register that in addition to the usual recreational activities competing for Americans’ Sunday time, Hispanics tend to hold lower-income jobs that often require them to work on Sundays.

He predicts that as Hispanics prosper, marry and have families (and as male “nones” marry believing wives), the proportion of Hispanics practicing the Catholic faith should increase.

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.