Denver Archdiocese Tries New Way to Welcome Hispanic Immigrants

DENVER — Of nearly 400,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver, some 25% to 30% are Hispanic. More than 40 parishes offer regular Masses in Spanish. Yet it's difficult for those who migrate here from south of the border to assimilate into the local Catholic culture.

“There's a cultural problem involving Hispanic Catholics in the United States,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez of the Denver Archdiocese. “Hispanics are looking for some of the same structure here that they are accustomed to, and it just isn't the same. Right now, we risk losing a whole generation of Hispanic Catholics to secular society.”

So in Denver, Bishop Gomez and other archdiocesan leaders have taken a bold step to embrace the burgeoning Catholic population that's in need of spiritual, cultural, educational and social services. This summer the archdiocese opened the Centro Juan Diego: Hispanic Institute for Family and Pastoral Care.

“In most other dioceses with large Hispanic populations, at most they are focusing on formation of faith within the Hispanic community,” Bishop Gomez said. “In Denver, we're addressing the social and cultural issues that Hispanics say they are facing with little help from their Catholic community.”

Gomez, former president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, immigrated to the United States in 1987 from Monterrey, Mexico.

In Mexico and throughout most of Central and South America, more than 95% of the population is Catholic. Bishop Gomez explained that Catholicism is a way of life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Furthermore, Bishop Gomez said, nearly all life's activities — including parties, work and education — revolve around the Church.

“A Hispanic immigrant expects a parish priest to be available 24-7, because that's what they're accustomed to,” Bishop Gomez said. “You don't make an appointment for confession in Mexico, you just walk up to a priest and say you need to confess. If you want to baptize a baby, you don't register and take classes like you do in the United States. Here, we're more inclined to have order. Priests have more scheduled lives in the United States.”

To house Centro Juan Diego, the archdiocese renovated a two-story, 1890s-era brick school building with $1.5 million that Bishop Gomez raised in community donations and foundation grants.

“To fully complete the Centro vision, we need another $1.5 million,” said Capuchin Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. “But we're pretty confident that success is its own best sales tool. The Centro will make a very big difference for our community. The more obvious that becomes, the more people will support it financially.”

Opportunities

Most Hispanics who immigrate do so in order to achieve better economic opportunities in one of the world's leading economies. As a group, however, Hispanics throughout the country seem to remain economically disadvantageddespite a renowned work ethic.

In three of Denver's mostly Hispanic neighborhoods, for example, the Latino Research and Policy Council Report on Census 2000 shows the median income for a family of four is $24,500 — only 40% of Denver County's median income.

“Our main goal is to evangelize the people, but we will also be trying to take care of material needs, such as how to get a checking account and how to find medical services,” Bishop Gomez said.

If Catholics don't do this, bishop Gomez explained, others will happily meet the needs of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in order to secularize them or assimilate them into non-Catholic religions. That, he said, will be a loss for the U.S. Catholic community.

Maria, an undocumented Colombian immigrant, exemplifies the bishop's concern. Maria swept floors and cleaned toilets in Boulder in order to pay for night classes at a vocational technical school where she received a practical nursing license. She grew up Catholic, surrounded by Catholics, and had never heard of other religions until she came to the United States at age 23.

“The Mormons took me in,” Maria said. “They did everything to help me. They gave me food, clothes and places to stay. They helped me with money. Catholics were not so much help. They were afraid I would get them in trouble.”

Maria belongs to a Mormon congregation today. She has become involved in the community and is planning to formally convert.

“We see this a lot with the Pentecostal churches as well,” Bishop Gomez said. “Hispanic Catholics are hardworking people who want to provide for their children. One way or another, they will make progress in this country. If their own Catholic community does not provide a proper basis of support — and the Pentecostal churches and secular society do provide that support — they will integrate into secular society and the Protestant religions.”

A Pottawatomie Indian, Archbishop Chaput understands the cultural differences that run through the large variety of ethnic communities that populate the Denver Archdiocese. He makes no apologies, however, for the traditions and cultural mores of American-born Catholics.

“Americans have a right to be proud of our country,” Archbishop Chaput said. “There's a huge amount of goodness in our national character. That's one of the reasons why most of the rest of the world wants to come here, or at least to duplicate what we've achieved.”

Yet Archbishop Chaput describes a kind of double-edged cultural sword, in which American achievement has caused a callousness that immigrants don't typically anticipate nor understand.

“There's a deep streak of individualism in the U.S. character that probably goes back to the Protestant Reformation,” Archbishop Chaput explained. “But it got even stronger because of our frontier experience, and it gets fed every day by our consumer approach to the world. Latin American cultures just tend to be much more communitarian. They're often poorer than us in material things, but they're richer in other ways. They're more person-oriented, more relationship-oriented”

Not every diocese, however, can afford to build a $3 million cultural/educational center for Hispanics or other groups of immigrants in order to properly assimilate them. However, Archbishop Chaput said Catholics throughout the United States can take simple, inexpensive measures to embrace a growing Hispanic culture that's here to stay.

“Some things are obvious at the parish level — showing some sensitivity to Latin American culture and traditions; making an effort to provide counseling, liturgies and religious education in Spanish where that's possible,” Archbishop Chaput said. “But what's most important, I think, is disciplining ourselves to have a little charity, courage and patience.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

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