A Step in the ‘Right Direction’: Latinos Make Up Record Share of New US Priests
Among the priests ordained this year in the U.S., 22% are Latinos, though the figure is still considerably lower than the overall proportion of U.S. Catholics who are Latino.
Among the men being ordained to the priesthood this year in the United States, 22% are Latinos — the highest recorded percentage of any given year.
That’s according to a survey of this year’s ordination class conducted by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA. The organization has conducted this study every year for the past 20 years. Last year, 16% of new priests in the U.S. were Latinos, and 10 years ago the figure was 15% of the total.
The jump to 22% is not indicative of a statistically significant, sustained increase, reports CARA, but it represents a positive and symbolic milestone, given the large population of Hispanics in the U.S. — and the historic lack of representation of Latinos in the U.S. presbyterate.
According to professor Hosffman Ospino of Boston College, a professor of religious education and expert on Hispanic Catholics in America, only 8.5% of all priests serving in the United States are Latino. Other recent reports have pegged that figure as low as 3%. Yet the group makes up as much as 45% of the country’s present-day Catholic population.
Ospino said that figure jumps to 60% when considering Catholics in the U.S. who are under 18 years of age, which makes the corresponding uptick in the percentage of Latinos among this year’s ordination class welcome news.
“There is a growing group of Hispanic seminarians, and it is yielding more priests,” Ospino told the Register. “This is a trend in the right direction.”
Homegrown and Foreign-Born
According to the CARA survey, Latinos among this year’s priestly ordination class come from a variety of backgrounds.
“This 22% number is a mix of homegrown and foreign-born vocations,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of CARA. “The foreign-born group [includes] men who immigrated with their families as children up to those who came to the U.S. as adults to be in seminary.”
This diversity is well illustrated in the six Latinos who, along with two other men, were ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on June 4. Four of the new Latino priests were born and grew up in the United States, while the two others were born in Mexico.
The number of foreign-born Latinos among the ordination class is also part of another trend revealed in the CARA study: 26% of all men ordained to the priesthood in the U.S. this year are foreign-born, with countries like Mexico, Brazil and Colombia among the most common places of birth, but also countries such as Vietnam and India.
According to Ospino, the profile of Latinos who enter seminary in the U.S. is different from that of newer immigrants.
“Immigrants tend to be older, while those Latinos who enter seminary are in their 20s and 30s,” said Ospino. He added that while most newly immigrated Latinos tend not to have legal status in the U.S., Latinos who enter seminary are not only legal U.S. citizens or immigrants with visas, but they also have a stronger educational background.
In some dioceses where the bishop or vocation director has a strong connection with a counterpart in Latin America, it’s also a common practice to identify Latino seminarians from abroad and invite them to serve in the U.S. Their seminary formation is then sponsored by the inviting diocese, and these men serve as a diocesan priest after ordination.
The rise in Latino priestly vocations in the U.S. may also be connected to the continued growth of U.S.-born Latinos, who are sometimes generations removed from immigration.
“Though many people think of Latinos as being immigrants, only 26% of Latinos in the U.S. are foreign-born. [Only] 20% of Latinos are not fluent in English,” said Ospino, adding that 94% of Hispanics under 18 in the U.S. are natural-born citizens and speak English.
Encouraging Latino Vocations
Ospino said that Catholic bishops across the U.S. are concerned with fostering more Latinos vocations to the priesthood.
“One way to do that is to have Latino priests working in vocations offices,” he said. “Another way is to increase the number of Hispanic children going to Catholic schools. This helps people grow up Catholic and discern a path to the priesthood.”
A CARA study from several years ago looked at ways in which pastoral outreach was done for specific groups, including Hispanics.
“Out of 17,000 parishes, 6,000 parishes had pastoral outreach to Spanish-speaking populations,” said Father Gaunt. Despite the fact that the majority of young Latinos in the U.S. speak English, Spanish-language Masses may also be an important part of fostering Latino vocations to the priesthood, given the familial and cultural significance these liturgies have even for non-immigrant Latinos.
Ospino also believes that all archbishops and cardinals should be fluent in Spanish in light of the fact that most major cities in the U.S. have significant Hispanic populations.
Anecdotally, immigrant families tend to have very strong familial and cultural religiosity.
“The practical elements of the faith are reinforced in the family,” said Father Gaunt. “This is a contribution to the American Church.”
Conversely, non-immigrant Catholics tend not to have a strong Catholic culture in the home.
“A grandmother living at home and blessing the children in the morning tends to happen in the immigrant house,” said Father Gaunt.
During the height of COVID lockdowns, when people could not go to Mass, Catholic devotions kept the faith growing in immigrant families, he added.
Cultural and Legal Challenges
Half of the 1.3 million Catholics in the Diocese of Orange, California, are Latino. While forming priests who can serve this population is important — about 70% of diocesan parishes offer a Spanish Mass — the proportion of recently ordained priests who are Latino is still considerably lower than the overall representation of Latinos in the diocese.
“We have had 41 men ordained in the last 10 years; 13 to 15 of them can speak or read in Spanish,” said Father Brandon Dang. “Five of these men are of Latino descent, and they were either born here or born abroad.”
Father Dang believes that the reason that vocations are not higher among Latinos has to do with family culture.
“We see this across all families, Anglos as well as Latinos. Families will say to focus on the career or focus on having a family. Poverty can be another factor, whereby families need their sons to help them out financially,” said Father Dang.
While a strong family culture means that Latino families can be strongly practicing the Catholic faith, it may not translate into vocations because of the emphasis on getting married and having children.
Bishop Luis Zarama of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, is the first Colombian-born bishop in the U.S. He arrived in the U.S. in 1991 and was ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Despite half of the diocese’s 500,000 Catholics being Latino, only a quarter of Raleigh’s current seminarians are from a Latino background.
Legal status is a significant factor holding back more Latino vocations in the diocese.
“When it comes to promoting vocations among Latinos, one of the first questions that need to be asked is: ‘Are you legal?’ If someone is illegal, they cannot go to seminary,” said Bishop Zamara. “Most of the 250,000 Latino Catholics in Raleigh are illegal.”
The process for becoming legal is very long and complicated. If someone is over the age of 18, they need to go back to their country of origin and apply for legal residency in the U.S. from there.
“But if they leave the country, it cannot be assured that they will be able to come back,” the bishop said.
Bishop Zamara also suggested that there can be some cultural challenges in fostering vocations among young Latino men.
“Sometimes they think that seminary/the priesthood is an easy path, but then they see that it is a difficult path, and they quit,” said Bishop Zamara.
In some cases, Latinos from other countries contact dioceses in the U.S. to inquire about entering seminary. Other times, they have already been living in the U.S. for a few years. Most dioceses make an effort to get homegrown vocations because they do not want to “poach” vocations from other countries.
“It is really case by case. Some men call us from out of the blue from a Latin American country,” said Father Dang “Sometimes they know a priest from the diocese, and there is a connection. Other times, it is random. Some men in seminary are being sponsored by a diocese in Latin America. We had one gentleman from Mexico who went to seminary there, left and then felt the tug to come back to seminary in the U.S. He had family connections in the Diocese of Orange.”
The Diocese of Orange has a policy that anyone who enters seminary for the diocese must have a family or friend connection.
In addition to other factors, COVID has hurt vocations across the board for all ethnic groups.
“We could not interact with candidates. It could only be done by Zoom, which is not the best way. In some ways, COVID slowed down the process. Now we need to catch up,” said Bishop Zamara.
The real challenge is to increase vocation numbers across the board, not just for Latinos, but to serve the entire Church.
As Bishop Zamara said, “We need men who are open to serve everyone in the Church — Anglos, Hispanics — and in any language.”