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Hispanic Catholics ignored

NCR Staff

Despite the fact that by 2020 Hispanics will surpass blacks as the nation’s leading minority and may also surpass whites as the dominant ethnic group within the Catholic church, Hispanic Catholics are still second-class citizens in most Catholic parishes, and racism is still strong, according to a 1999 study.

Worse yet, according to a 1999 study, Hispanic Catholics are twice as likely to worship in “separate and unequal settings” as in “equal” settings. Hispanic parishioners frequently are required to “rent” the church they belong to. “In quite a few dioceses, a relative minority of Euro-American Catholics who predate the Hispanics still control the central functions of the parish, and the Hispanics, in effect, constitute a ‘parish within a parish.’ In fact, this relationship is explicit: The Hispanics keep their Mass collections in a separate fund and use monies to pay ‘rent’ to the church for use of its sanctuary and parish hall.”

Disturbing too, are the statistics in this soon-to-be-released U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs committee’s study, “Hispanic Ministry at the Turn of the New Millennium.” Those statistics deal with dioceses with the most rapid increase in their Hispanic Catholic population.

Charlotte, N.C., heads the list, up 84.3 percent in six years, 1990-’96. And while the impact of the 22,735 new Hispanics may seem small, so was the Catholic population absorbing them, 97,000.

A starker indication of the silent giant of shifting Hispanic Catholics is in Atlanta, Ga., the third fastest growing diocese, after Reno-LasVegas. The Atlanta Catholic population nearly doubled in a decade: from 158,00 in 1989 to 311,000 in 1999 while the general Atlanta population increased by only 25 percent (4 million to 5 million).

Though the registered Hispanic Catholic presence in Atlanta increased by 60,000 (80.1 percent, 1990-96), Atlanta likely has at least another 300,000 “anonymous” new Catholics out there it can barely touch. (The “Millennium” study says a “conservative” estimate is that 67 percent of all Hispanics are Catholic. That means 300,000 of Atlanta’s Hispanic new arrivals are Catholic.)

However, says Gonzalo Saldana, Hispanic ministries director for the Atlanta archdiocese, possibly only 15 percent of those newcomer Catholics are known to the church.

The archdiocese does not have the resources to tap the new Catholic arrivals among the more than 450,000 Hispanics who have arrived in the past decade. A high percentage of them are undocumented, getting what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls “the big wink” because the Georgia economy is now so dependent on them. The archdiocese does train Hispanic ministry catechists, said Saldana, but it has to rely on the parishes to do the evangelization outreach.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 23.3 million Hispanics in the United States in 1990, and that constituted 9 percent of the population. The number has grown to 31.7 million or 11.6 percent of the population today.

Other “Millennium” study findings include that:

  • Nationwide even parishes with a significant Hispanic presence do not offer “culturally sensitive” programs to Hispanics. Less than a third of them have youth ministry, programs for adults preparing to join the church, lay leadership training and parish renewal or cursillo retreat programs in Spanish;
  • Hispanic Mass attendance is much higher than commonly believed;
  • Hispanic men do not appear to be significantly less likely than Hispanic women to participate in church activities;
  • Christian base communities no longer are, if they ever were, the quintessential expression of the Hispanic small group faith experience, and in many dioceses, “base communities have come and gone”;
  • The dominant small group faith experience for Hispanics today is the charismatic movement;
  • Significantly fewer priests and sisters receive continuing education in Spanish language and Hispanic devotions and sacramental life than at the start of the decade.

Hispanic religious vocations are low, with only 511 Hispanic seminarians nationwide, and only one Hispanic priest per 10,000 Hispanics, compared to one priest for every 1,200 Catholics in the general population. Only 18 percent of U.S. dioceses offer English as a Second Language to Hispanic seminarians; only 31 percent require non-Hispanic seminarians to study Spanish.

In reporting findings of the Hispanic Affairs Secretariat’s national mail and telephone surveys, a “plus side, down side” comparison states that while 43 percent of dioceses do have lay leadership institutes or programs for Hispanics, most Hispanic programs reach only adults -- Spanish-speaking and English-speaking. Hispanic youth are not well served.

While more dioceses do support Spanish outreach, they’re no match for the proselytizing of Hispanic Catholics by Protestant groups, which has increased dramatically.

Nor, apparently, is the diocesan structure for Hispanic support consistent. While 44 Hispanic ministry offices have been created or upgraded, 10 were dismantled or downgraded. Hispanic ministry budgets are higher than previously, Hispanic ministry staffs have doubled, the directors are better educated and more professional, but collaboration between Hispanic ministry and other diocesan departments is limited, and there is little sustained Hispanic pastoral planning.

Contacted by NCR, study director Stewart James Lawrence of Puentes, Inc., which researches partnership building in Latino communities nationwide, said one key issue is that the next census will probably show that newcomer Hispanics are 50 to 55 percent of the Hispanic population while programs are being geared more to established Hispanic/Latino communities settled for two and three generations.

Another factor “no one wants to talk about,” said Lawrence, a recently baptized Catholic who is a member of Washington’s Sagrado Corazón Parish, is that newcomer Hispanics feel social discrimination and feel “locked out” by existing Hispanic and Latino entrenched populations.

“It’s very hard for the newer Hispanics to find any foothold in these Catholic parishes. Central Americans in Long Island, N.Y., switch to Protestant churches because they feel shut out by an earlier generation of Latinos, even in Hispanic oriented parishes. But nobody likes to talk about that stuff.

“It’s a fear among quite a few people in dioceses where the [Hispanic] population is overwhelmingly foreign born, such as Arlington, Va., and many out west,” he said.

The essence of the study, said Lawrence, is that “the problem of participation is a problem of leadership. If you don’t foster, or allow the fostering of a dynamic of leadership within the Hispanic Catholic community, if you don’t foster a dialogue between that leadership and the existing leadership in parishes and dioceses, you’re not going to have the vibrant multicultural or bicultural church that all these documents have been proclaiming for the past 25 years.”

The biggest weakness, he said, is that in most dioceses there is not a collaborative Hispanic ministry being implemented “from the get-go. It’s an inherent problem. Collaborative ministry is a prophetic vision. We’ve not been there before. The church articulates it but doesn’t follow through.”

In the study’s summary, Lawrence writes that if he finds “major shortcoming in the progress of Hispanic ministry since 1985, it is not because he is unaware of the tremendous progress: 21 Hispanic bishops and Hispanic ministry offices in 150 dioceses.

“There can be no doubt, on paper at least,” writes Lawrence, “of the church’s and the bishops’ historic commitment to Hispanics.”

But what about Hispanic Catholics being charged to use the parish sanctuary and church hall. Don’t the bishops know it’s going on?

“Sure they do,” said Ronaldo Cruz, who directs the bishops’ Hispanic Affairs Secretariat. “That’s part of the task of education. People have to be informed of the disparities. It’s part of why we have Encuentro 2000.”

The U.S. bishops are currently sponsoring Encuentro 2000 in July, the fourth nationwide Hispanic gathering since 1972. This time it is nationwide, but different from past meetings in that instead of a huge gathering, the focus is on parish-level groups at which Catholics are encouraged to tell their multicultural stories in order to understand others.

The “Millennium” study, said Cruz, is the Hispanic Affairs committee’s more “scientific” alternative to the customary encuentro (encounter) “consultation” process.

Like Encuentro 2000, he said, the study is the beginning of a process. Asked if critics would remark that Hispanic Affairs “is always a beginning process,” Cruz replied, “That’s true, and part of the reason for that is because we have such constant incredible change going on.”

The U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs committee will release the study in March.

Program Priorities for Hispanic Ministry /Table 28
More Hispanic formation and lay leadership programs
Hispanic language and cultural education for priests and diocesan personnel
More Hispanice priests and pastoral workers assigned to Hispanics
Youth Ministry
Base Communities and RENEW
Evangelization and outreach to newcomers and lapsed Catholics
Media programs
Improved guidance for charismatic renewal and cursillos
Vocational retreats and discernment
Popular religiosity
Community organizing/social justice
Legalization and other social services





Respondents were free to list more than one area.

Hispanic Reality at a glance /Table 29
Total Population of US Hispanics
Percent of US Population
Percent of US Population under 25
Hispanic Percent of US Population in 2010
Black Percent of US Population under 25
Hispanic Population, Native-Born (1980)
Hispanic Population, Native-Born (1990)
Catholic Growth since 1960 Due to Hispanics
Catholics who are Hispanic
Hispanics who are Catholic (1994)
Hispanics who are Catholic (1998)
Number of Hispanic Parishes
Hispanic Percent of US Parishes
Number of Hispanic Priests
Hispanic Percent of US Priests
Catholics per US Priest
Hispanic Catholics per Hispanic Priest
Number of Hispanic Seminarians
Hispanic Percent of US Seminarians
23-30 Million

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000