Reaching Latinos: How Should the U.S. Church Respond?

Hispanic Catholics will comprise the majority of Catholic Americans soon, but experts in Latino ministry say it’s crucial to implement measures to keep them engaged with their ancestral faith.

Latino Catholics participate in a celebration Dec. 12, 2013, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.
Latino Catholics participate in a celebration Dec. 12, 2013, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. (photo: Facebook/Catholic Extension)

HOUSTON — Against the backdrop of dire statistics showing large numbers of U.S. Latinos are leaving the Catholic faith, U.S. Church leaders are making efforts to better reach the country’s youngest and fastest-growing population.

In a speech delivered Aug. 19 in Houston to leaders in the Latino community, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia stated, “Demography equals destiny,” noting that Hispanics are projected to make up the majority of U.S. Catholics in the near future. Because of this reality, Archbishop Chaput said the Church needs to place added emphasis on catechizing the Latino community and developing leaders from within it.

Archbishop Chaput’s remarks come in the wake of a Pew study on American Hispanics’ religious affiliation that was published earlier this year. The study found that the percentage of Latinos who are Catholic had dropped by 12 points in the last four years alone, from 67% to 55%. One in four American Latinos, the study adds, are “ex-Catholics.”

Some may be tempted to look at these numbers and conclude that the Catholic Church has done next to nothing to make Catholicism appealing to Latinos in America. But Timothy Matovina says this paints an inaccurate picture.

“Catholics falling away from the faith isn’t a ‘Latino problem,’” said Matovina, who is the executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church. “It’s a ‘Catholic problem’ that affects people of all cultures and backgrounds.”

Noting that 70% of U.S. Latinos are not immigrants, Matovina says that most U.S. Latinos are pressured by the same forces of secularization that affect other groups. “As Latinos become more involved in U.S. society, they tend to do what all other Americans do: They switch religions or they tend to become religiously unaffiliated.”

Matovina also notes that further study is needed to expand on the findings of the Pew study, especially addressing two important phenomena: multiple-switching and multiple-belonging. The Notre Dame professor also pointed out that the study doesn’t adequately explore the beliefs of “unaffiliated” Latinos, who make up 16% of all U.S. Hispanics but 31% of younger Hispanics.

“Who are those people?” he asked rhetorically. “They’re probably not philosophical atheists. Are they spiritual but not religious? To evangelize within the Catholic Church, we need to learn more about who these people are.”


Latino Spirituality

According to Matovina, the decreasing prevalence of Catholicism among U.S. Hispanics is due in part to the Church in America not doing enough to promote liturgical and parish practices that resonate with Latinos.

Although he is quick to point out that there is no such thing as “a single Latino spirituality,” Matovina acknowledges that there are some general characteristics found in the religious attitudes and practices of most people of Latin-American origin. Among these, he highlights a “vibrant” style of worship and a “communitarian ethos” that emphasizes fellowship beyond Mass.  “[Catholics] have that style of worship and a strong emphasis on community, but it’s not being lived out fully in our U.S. Catholic parishes,” he said.

The importance of these factors — and their absence from some Catholic churches in America — would explain why a large number of Hispanic Catholics are attracted to evangelical Protestant denominations, like Pentecostalism and similar “charismatic” movements.

According to the Pew study, the percentage of Latinos who consider themselves evangelical Protestant has increased four points in the past four years, most noticeably among middle-aged people. Many who leave the Catholic Church cite the sense of community and the more vibrant style of worship as a reason for making the switch from Catholicism.

But according to Matovina, “What works for evangelical Protestantism works for the Catholic Church,” and most dioceses that have a large number of Hispanics are increasingly promoting practices that resonate with Latino spirituality, as opposed to simply offering Mass in Spanish.

“If you have good preaching, good clerical leadership and good music, Latinos will drive from miles away to attend Mass,” says Matovina.


Room for Improvement

That’s a finding confirmed by Hosffman Ospino, who teaches at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. He recently conducted a three-year national study of Catholic parishes with Hispanic ministry, focused on learning more about the leadership, methods of evangelization and structure of parishes with Hispanic ministry.

“Parishes with Hispanic-specific ministry are vibrant and have higher levels of attendance and baptisms [than those that do not],” Ospino said of one of the study’s major findings.

But other findings are more disconcerting. Most parishes with Hispanic ministry tend to struggle financially and have limited resources. Additionally, the majority of leaders in Hispanic ministry are not Hispanic themselves and are nearing retirement, with no clear replacements on the horizon.

“Hispanic ministry is going to be impacted more dramatically than many other ministries because the rate of replacement has not kept up with the rate of Latino population growth in the U.S.,” said Ospino.

The same can be said about the rate of Hispanics in the priesthood. Despite the fact that Latinos make up 40% of all U.S. Catholics, only 6% of priests and 12%-15% of seminarians are Latino. Similarly, only 10% of American bishops are Latino.

And Notre Dame’s Matovina says these practical limitations are the greatest impediment to making successful Hispanic ministry more widespread.

“It’s no mystery [what works with Latinos],” he said. “It’s just difficult for bishops to put enough priests in place and to cultivate enough parishes.”

To address this, Matovina points out the need to equip future priests to work with and relate to Hispanic communities, noting that Latinos have a great sense of trust and appreciation for a priest who speaks their language and understands their culture.

But beyond that, both he and Ospino agree that the Church also needs to focus on training and developing leaders within the Hispanic community itself. While increasing the number of Hispanic vocations to the priesthood and religious life is a desirable outcome, Ospino identifies two critical areas that may be a more pressing priority: the youth and the laity.


Youth Ministry

According to Ospino, 60% of U.S. Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic, but very little is being done to reach out to them in an effective way.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Ospino regarding the lack of focus on Hispanic youth.

He says most youth-ministry programs fail to account for the fact that most Hispanic youth in the U.S., over 80%, are not immigrants and may not speak Spanish. However, they come from a Latino context that needs to be accounted for in catechesis. “English-speaking but not Anglo,” is how Ospino characterizes this prevalent demographic.

“We need ministry that’s in English but has a distinctively Hispanic character,” he advised.

Ospino highlights the work of Instituto Fe y Vida as an example of an organization that is supporting Hispanic youth ministry done right. The Stockton, Calif.-based institute was born out of the Second National Encuentro for Hispanic Ministry in 1977 that requested “a national organization to be set up with a formation center for Hispanic ministries.”

Ken Johnson-Mondragón, Fe y Vida’s director of research and publications, says the pastoral directives by the Encuentro “have not greatly improved,” even as the Latino population in the U.S. has surged over the past half century. That’s where his organization comes in.

“Fe y Vida is taking a leading role in providing support and training where none would otherwise be available, as well as in advocating for additional emphasis on this ministry at the level of dioceses, parishes, Catholic schools and ecclesial movements,” he explained.

Johnson-Mondragón says that Fe y Vida’s vision for youth ministry is successful because it is “informed by the Latin-American approach to youth and young-adult ministry, adapted to the pastoral reality of Hispanics in the United States.” The distinctive characteristics of this approach include a focus on encountering the living Christ in Scripture and daily life, adaptability to particular settings and an emphasis on ministry in the context of a community.

Fe y Vida’s programs, training and support have inspired thousands of people who do engage in youth ministry with Latinos. Johnson-Mondragón says that, in a few cases, youth ministers who receive training from Fe y Vida have seen their pastoral outreach grow as much as 200% or even 300% in a short time.


Lay Leadership

While Hispanic Catholics may be underrepresented in the priesthood and in Catholic schools, one area where they are increasingly rising to prominence is lay leadership, as lay apostolates, charismatic movements and nonprofits staffed by Latino Catholics grow across the country.

Catholic Extension’s Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative (HLLI) has played a critical role in this process. A national fundraising organization, Catholic Extension promotes Hispanic lay leadership by partnering with dioceses with large but underserved Latino populations, also known as “mission dioceses.” Catholic Extension provides three years of funding for a new full-time position dedicated to Hispanic outreach, while the diocese commits to fund the position after the initial grant period.

“We’re providing the seed funding for these communities to grow, develop and eventually become sustainable with their Hispanic ministry programs,” said Marina Pastrana, the initiative’s manager of mission programs.

Pastrana says one of the most important indicators of HLLI’s success is the number of vocations it has produced. “Several of our lay leaders now have the first Hispanic vocations in the history of their dioceses,” Pastrana noted. “In these dioceses, young people are beginning to see themselves reflected within leadership, and they are realizing their own vocation to serve the Hispanic community — and it’s only the beginning.”


Incredible Potential

U.S. Latinos are on course to be the single largest demographic in the Catholic Church in the near future. But professors Matovina and Ospino both maintain that the Latino population has something far more important to offer the Catholic Church than just an increase in numbers.

“Latinos are hungry for God,” said Notre Dame’s Matovina, who regularly speaks at Spanish-language formation programs in dioceses around the country. “They will drive two hours with their five children to speak about Jesus and God with you for eight hours straight on a Saturday. The spiritual hunger of Latinos is humbling, and it’s one of the greatest treasures the Catholic Church has in this country right now.”

Matovina went on to add that Latinos bring “what immigrant Catholics have always brought to this country: enthusiasm, dedication and sacrifice.”

“There’s no comparing the richness of their cultural and Catholic traditions, the depth of their faith and commitment,” he said. “This is a tremendous treasure, and to the extent that we can cultivate it, we’ll all be better for it.”

Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.