Immigrant Catholics

(photo: CNS Photo by Octavio Duran)

TUCSON, Ariz. — Once a self-described “Sunday Catholic,” Rubén Davalos said faith was the farthest thing from his mind when it suddenly became the most important thing in his life.

The Mexican-born graduate of a California agricultural college said he was more concerned with his job and caring for his own growing family, when he accepted an invitation to attend a charismatic renewal meeting. “That was the turning point of my life,” he said.

Now director of evangelization and Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Tucson, Davalos said he has seen first-hand the power of charismatic worship. He has been “touched by the Holy Spirit” and he has prayed in tongues, “because the words aren’t there in English or Spanish to express what I was feeling.”

But, he cautioned, “don’t interpret that to mean I’m someone who’s crying all the time or rolling on the floor.”

Rather than seeing it as a novelty, Davalos claims he’s simply embracing his Catholic faith more fully, embracing the gifts of the Holy Spirit given at baptism “by trying to live those gifts, every day.”

He’s not alone, according to “Changing Faith,” a report on Hispanics and the transformation of American religion, published in April by the Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Based on a telephone survey of 4,016 Hispanic and 2,000 non-Hispanic U.S. adults, the report revealed that 54% of Hispanic Catholics call themselves charismatic, embracing divine healing, speaking in tongues and direct revelation from God, mostly in small prayer groups, but also at Mass.

Although it is more popular among lesser-educated and foreign-born Hispanics, 59% of whom describe themselves as charismatic, even native-born and college-educated Hispanics are three times more likely to describe themselves as charismatic than the 12% of non-Hispanic Catholics who identify with the movement.

That means even second-generation Latinos “are different from mainstream Catholicism,” said Gabriel Escobar, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center and a member of the study’s research team, “and, by virtue of their presence, accounting for a third of Catholics, it augurs for changes to come.”

Still Catholic

Yet, he cautioned that these changes don’t mean an embrace of Protestant Pentecostalism.

“They’re still Catholic and more fervent Catholics, in many ways, than those who don’t describe themselves as charismatic.”

More than half of Hispanic charismatic Catholics pray the Rosary at least once a month, far more than the third of non-charismatic Catholics who do. They also go to confession more frequently than non-charismatic Catholics, and nearly nine out of 10 venerate the Blessed Mother, twice the total for Catholics in the United States as a whole.

“Those traditions, inherited from their parents and grandparents, are something they hold very deep in their hearts,” said Father Gonzalo Villegas, parochial vicar for eight mostly Hispanic parishes in south Tucson. “It’s part of who they are.”

It may even be what draws Hispanics to charismatic worship, Villegas said. Separated from extended family and friends, immigrants and native-born Hispanic Americans alike are looking to preserve traditions in a community where they can feel at home, he said. The charismatic movement has been able to create that community, offering a family of the faithful, “coming together in a spirit of celebration.”

Over time, Villegas said, the Hispanic patterns of worship and celebration are changing. U.S. holidays like Thanksgiving become important, and traditional Latin American celebrations are modified as different Hispanic cultures come together, “and this diversity of people is beautiful, but it’s also challenging because it causes friction and pain.”

For Alejandro Aguilara-Titus, assistant director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the “cross-fertilization” of Latin cultures, as well as Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations, means “Catholics will continue to learn from each other.”

The surge in charismatic worship reflects “a traditional Hispanic desire for a deeply felt kind of relationship with God,” and the embrace of the movement, even in association with Protestant Pentecostal Christians, “doesn’t mean they lose their Catholic identity.”

He said, “With a Marian dimension and devotions to the saints,” Hispanic charismatic worship “is a very Hispanic way of celebrating the faith.”

Whether Hispanic or Asian or even French or Irish, Davalos said each culture has a distinctive way of worship because of cultural traditions. For Hispanic Catholics, “Our Lady of Guadalupe will continue to hold a special place for the faithful. For Cubans, it’s different,” he said.

“When you go to another country with another culture, the only place where you’ll find some sense of welcome is in the Church,” Davalos said. That’s why Hispanics have responded well to charismatic worship. “It’s in the Church that God gives us our strength to go on. If we don’t have that pillar of faith, we’re doomed.”

Philip S. Moore writes from Vail, Arizona.