e-mail us
Bishop says future of U.S. church is in Spanish language

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Concern for the development of effective pastoral policies for 20 million Hispanic Catholics has grown in recent years, but if a recent study and ministry experts are correct, the concern may be too little too late to stop a serious drain of Hispanics to other churches. During their annual policy meeting in November, the nation’s 300 Catholic bishops approved plans for a millennium encuentro (encounter) -- a meeting of 5,000 Hispanic Catholic leaders, the fourth of its kind since 1972 -- and they voted on a first-ever Spanish-language liturgical text, the Sacramentario.

Bishop Charles Grahmann, echoing a 1995 statement made by the pope during his U.S. visit, said, “The future of the Catholic church in the United States is in the Spanish language.”

But in the day-to-day practice of the faith, where plans voiced at conferences or drafted on paper intersect with people’s lives, difficulties abound, according to leading veterans of Hispanic ministry. They see the need for effective pastoral strategies as especially pressing, since -- despite the defections -- Hispanics will shortly be the majority in the U.S. church.

A closer look at Hispanic ministry reveals “serious failures of a pastoral nature on the part of us church leaders,” according to Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and former executive director of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry.

Sr. Dominga Zapata, Hispanic-American and Native American consultant for the Chicago archdiocese, said that despite good intentions from the larger church, Hispanics “don’t seem to feel we are genuine children. We feel we are the illegitimate children. ... We still struggle in so many parishes to be accepted, to sit around the table in dialogue.”

One result of these shortcomings, Hispanic ministry leaders say, is the movement of Hispanics to other “tables” -- primarily those of fundamentalist Protestant churches.

An exodus

A survey released in October by the National Opinion Research Center, headed by sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley, documents a “hemorrhage” of American Hispanics from the Catholic church at a rate of 60,000 annually. One of every seven Hispanic Catholics has left the church in the past quarter century, Greeley asserts, representing “the worst defection in the history of the Catholic church in the United States” and a “catastrophic” loss.

Greeley’s findings state that in the early 1970s, 78 percent of Hispanic-Americans identified themselves as Catholic; the percentage for the mid-1990s stands at 67 percent. Hispanics now account for 23 percent of the membership of Protestant churches, up from 17 percent in the early 1970s. Catholic commentaries on this trend have often attributed the exodus to the aggressive evangelization campaigns of fundamentalist Protestant churches in the United States and in Latin America. “For decades,” Deck wrote in the University of Notre Dame Press’ 1994 anthology, Hispanic Catholic Culture in the U.S.: Issues and Concerns, “Roman Catholic writers have been bemoaning the proselytism of what they disdainfully call the sects ... but serious self-evaluation and soul searching has usually not characterized their reflections.” In a more recent essay responding to Greeley’s findings, Deck noted: “Despite the frequent mention of this concern at almost every ecclesial gathering that has anything to do with Hispanics or even the broader reality of the U.S. Catholic Church during the past 10 years, a coherent response has not materialized. ... There has always been great heat in this topic but not a great deal of light.”

The growing challenges of Hispanic ministry, coupled with concern about the accelerated shift of Hispanics to other churches, have forced many pastoral leaders to examine more deeply the practical, cultural and institutional barriers that prevent many Hispanics from finding a home in the U.S. Catholic church. Analysts have begun to look at the structural origins of Hispanic defection, the factors that push people away by action or omission.

A key problem is the lack of Hispanics in positions of influence and leadership within the hierarchical structures of the church, say observers. “Too often conditions do not exist that allow each cultural group to develop its own leadership; rather the Hispanics are expected to submit to the leadership of others in the name of unity,” Deck said. “Unity, however, does not come about by fiat. It must be negotiated from a position of mutual strength. A sprinkling of superficial customs and multicultural liturgies does not suffice. People are not spiritually nourished, and so they look elsewhere.”

Zapata agreed. In Chicago, she said, leadership structures do not reflect the reality of a Catholic population that is 31 percent Hispanic and growing in sheer numbers and in geographic diversity. “One challenge is the speed of the increase of the population of Hispanics in Chicago. At one time, there were only Hispanics in the city, now we are facing this all over the suburbs,” she said. “But there are no Hispanic bishops in Chicago, even though we have terrific bishops who speak the language. Where are we in terms of decision-making positions in the Catholic church?” she asked.

One, holy, complicated

In addition to problems of representation in leadership, Fr. Domingo Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican and superior general of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, said that at another level Hispanics frequently feel homeless within the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic -- and complicated -- church of Jesus Christ.” Speaking to those involved in Hispanic ministry, Rodríguez cites making people feel at home as a number one recommendation.

“Our church speaks eloquently of its concern for Hispanics, but in the concrete situation of the parishes, it is difficult to understand the situation. The parish is not a point of coming together where Hispanics feel embraced, where they feel at home. Feeling at home is key, feeling a sense of belonging in the parish,” said Rodríguez, a prominent lecturer and preacher on Hispanic issues. “The Protestants have obtained this.”

Part of the alienation, Rodríguez claims, developed because the largely “middle class” U.S. church that grew out of a different immigrant experience has unfair expectations of today’s Hispanics -- pastorally, economically and culturally.

“Many of us in ministry latch onto pastoral approaches or beliefs that become obsolete, given the changing realities of people’s lives,” he said.

Something as simple as different concepts of the value of time can contribute to feelings of alienation, Rodríguez pointed out. “As Americans, we treasure time and being on time -- time is money, we even say! Hispanics and other ethnic groups perceive time from a completely different perspective. They treasure life, the person -- time is subservient to these,” he wrote in a guideline document for people in Hispanic ministry.

Rodríguez warned the larger church to avoid expecting Hispanics to follow “the pattern of behavior of your immigrant foreparents, who after a number of years assimilated and became part of the predominant society.”

Today’s challenges are different, he said: “There are historical, political, geographic, economic and social factors that make the Hispanic presence in this country a different experience than that of your grandparents,” he said.

Rodríguez said a major challenge is to make Hispanics feel they are “taken into account, that they can speak, that people pay attention to them and not that worth is determined by how much I put in the collection plate.” The crucial question, Rodriguez said during an interview with NCR, is “Who is the church looking after?” Too often, the answer is “Those who have the power and money. ... The bottom line is not the faith, the bottom line is the money; show me the money,” he said.

Donald Miller, professor of religion at the University of Southern California and author of the recently released Reinventing American Protestantism, said that the smaller, “more family-like” atmosphere of the Protestant churches draws Latinos, especially at a time when priest shortages and church closings are turning many Catholic parishes in big cities into mega-churches with “huge, relatively impersonal” settings.

Community is the draw

“Look at it in market terms. Would you rather go to a large, impersonal church or to a smaller, more intimate place where the Spirit is moving, where you have an extended family experience, extended family dynamics?” Miller asked. He said that immigrants, who are “strangers in a strange land,” will naturally “gravitate to the warmth of a tightly knit community ... where people are more likely to care for each other.”

Miller said people defect when their needs are not being met by the structure within which they participate. Miller said that Pentecostal congregations were among the first to “indigenize” music, encouraging people to sing in their native language. Many Pentecostals respond powerfully to the “mystical desire” of Latinos, he said.

“The Pentecostal churches are much closer to the culture of most immigrant communities than the large Catholic church,” Miller said. Churches, he added, are for immigrants “transnational institutional bridges between the country they came from and the country they are in.”

In mega-parish settings, where many cultures are present, music and liturgy often become homogenized, Miller said. In smaller spaces, however, “if you have 100 people, all from the same city or region, it allows religion to be experienced in the tongue the people grew up with.”

Loyola Marymount’s Deck agreed. In his response to Greeley’s survey, Deck outlined the structural deficiencies exacerbating the problems of Hispanic ministry and prompting Latino defection from Catholicism. “More and more diverse cultures are being pushed into existing parishes because the church does not have enough priests to staff new congregations,” Deck said. Moreover, territorial parish structures “may or may not offer the appropriate conditions for ongoing formation, prayer, worship, fellowship and service.”

In contrast, Deck said, smaller, non-Catholic settings frequently offer viable communities where a “real sense of ownership” is cultivated.

Maria Luisa Gastón, director of Hispanic and multicultural services for the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, based in Washington, said she thinks a lot of Protestant groups are more effective than many Catholic groups at embracing the ways in which Hispanics “unite body and soul ... home with church ... the economic with the spiritual ... the way we sacramentalize daily life.” Protestant churches often provide members with transportation, baby-sitters, clothing, furniture and “loving warmth out of simple gospel values.” She said these are the “human relational things we had in our own churches at home, or in our families and they are related to what we believe God is all about.”

The last Hispanic Encuentro, Gaston pointed out, recognized the lack of this personalized element in the Catholic church. The section on evangelization, she said, admits that from a Hispanic perspective, “one perceives a cold church without fraternal love or a communitarian dimension.” Hispanics who defect may miss aspects of Catholicism, like devotion to Mary and the sacraments and they may feel discomfort with Protestant criticism of Catholicism and the pope. But many are “willing to sacrifice that for the more integral approach to faith and reality,” Gastón said.

Deck said that Greeley’s findings on the defection of Hispanic Catholics are “part of a more serious matter” -- that of renewal of the clerical culture, of authority relationships and channels of participation in the wider church.

“When leadership in the church is too narrowly entrusted to the clerics, the results, as we sadly see today, are a lack of pastoral options and a diminishment of the entire church,” Deck said. “There is a linkage, therefore, between the struggle to redefine ministry, especially the role of women in the church and the church’s ability to flourish in the years to come.”

Real collaboration

For Deck, Hispanic movement to other churches “has to do with the struggle to open up Catholic church structures to real collaboration.” Without this, he said, “we do not have the practical means to respond to the religious quest of Hispanics and many others as well.”

Gaston also emphasized that the challenges revealed in ministry to Hispanics represent “larger authority, structural questions. ... How many times in the Catholic church have we enabled Hispanics to be leaders?” The Catholic church, Gaston said, offers little in the way of “affirming, commissioning, giving authority and importance to Hispanics so they can have a sense of, ‘I am doing this.’ “ Hispanics “get this much more easily in the Protestant congregations.”

Miller agreed that many Protestant churches, because they are “flat bureaucratically” extend “an enormous amount of trust in the laity to start programs. ... They give leadership to them. ... They are not micromanaging.”

Cultivating participative leadership within Catholicism is crucial considering that, despite Greeley’s predictions of defection, Hispanics are fast becoming the majority presence in the Catholic church. The transformation has inherent difficulties. “The most difficult thing is this transition from minority to majority. No one knows how to manage that change. Until now it’s been the Hispanics, the poor, who have had to adapt, not those in power,” said a leader in pastoral work with Hispanics who asked to remain anonymous.

She said that many efforts at multicultural churches have been “basically Anglo-American church culture with small strips of other identities,” but without a real turning over of ownership to groups that have not historically dominated. What must be asked, she said, is, “Who still does the planning? Who is still in charge of the decision-making process?”

Rudy Vela of the San Antonio Mexican American Cultural Center, which has been at the forefront of Hispanic ministry for 25 years, said effective Hispanic and multicultural ministry “calls for a change in the way we really see ourselves as church.” On one hand, he said he does not think that members of the dominant culture in the United States “have a sense of what it means to have a culture ... that has traditions, piety. ... They’ve kind of just been swept into the undertow of who we are as Americans, that everyone should learn how to speak as Americans, that’s what everyone should be.”

Gaston echoed Vela’s point: “The status quo, the non-Hispanic Catholics, the Anglos registered in the parish are not willing to give up part of what they have, as if it were only theirs.” Sometimes, she said, the only way for communities to be free to practice their faith expressions is by following the lead of some Korean or Nigerian churches that obtained separate buildings.

“I don’t have answers, though, in terms of the multicultural reality. It is a very complex issue,” Gaston said. However, some might argue, the issue is as simple as where you ask people to meet. Consider the last three annual liturgy conferences in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

In 1995 separate conferences were organized for Spanish and English liturgies. The Spanish-language event, held in an unassuming grade school in a region with dynamic Hispanic presence, drew 1,600 participants. (NCR, Nov. 17, 1995).

The following year, Hispanic organizers consented to a joint English-Spanish conference. The site chosen was the elegant Sheraton Hotel in Long Beach. The location and ambience -- “it was far, it was expensive to get there,” one organizer noted -- cut Hispanic participation dramatically. That year only about 275 Hispanic leaders attended.

The 1997 conference, which focused on Cardinal Roger Mahony’s liturgical letter, “Gather Faithfully Together,” which includes an affirmation of the “gifts” different cultures bring to the faith, (NCR, Oct. 24) was also held at the Long Beach Sheraton. Hispanics numbered about 350.

Rodríguez attributed these kinds of problems to the “middle-class mentality” of American Catholicism. “The U.S. Catholic mentality, which is of the middle class, has a hard time understanding Hispanics who are not part of that middle class,” he said.

Something as simple as collection envelopes can contribute to a sense of alienation among Hispanics, he said. Many Hispanics, he said, “have been born in small villages, where they were part of the church without having to register and this idea of contributions in envelopes doesn’t fit.” Gaston said that things like registry -- and the underlying cultural assumption that such formalities are what denote Catholic membership -- confuse data on Hispanic Catholics. She said that while Greeley is right about the problem of defections, the growth in numbers of Hispanic Catholics must also be recognized.

Rodríguez said priests and parish communities should ask themselves, “What priorities are we giving to these communities in need?” He suggested that priests and bishops convoke “town hall” meetings with Hispanic communities to ask, “What really are the needs of the people?”

Other leaders emphasized the importance of Christian base communities and other smaller, more personal models of worship and ministry. “We go to the traditional modes of organized church, of providing Mass, of getting the priest, instead of going to the neighborhoods, starting communities there, maybe not having Eucharist for awhile, but really building prayer,” said Gaston.

Zapata agreed. The base communities “make so much sense for us. As we grow, we get lost in the parish and we’re not familiar with all that structure,” she said. She said there must be micro-level attempts to bring members of the parish into personal dialogue with one another. “I don’t mean an international dinner, a potluck, where everyone puts out food then goes and eats their own. I mean real dialogue, two or three families, in their homes, sharing food and talking and struggling with the language.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 1997