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Wide variations in ministry to Hispanics

NCR Staff

Approaches to Hispanic Catholic ministry vary widely, but away from the more customary Hispanic/Latino U.S. venues (Chicanos in the Southwest; Puerto Ricans in New York, Cubans in Florida), the “new” areas face similar underlying problems. Whether the location is Atlanta, Arlington, Va., or Rockford, Ill., there’s a general racism and, frequently, the lack of a welcome.

In Atlanta, when archdiocesan Hispanic ministry director Gonzalo Saldana was asked what three priorities he’d urge on the U.S. Catholic church, he answered, “One, really prepare the people for the coming of the Hispanics. Our diocese is doing it, but we don’t have enough resources.”

“Two -- and actually this a national concern -- not only develop lay leaders, but develop the recognition that they are lay leaders,” Saldana said. “Sometimes we form our people, offer all kinds of training, but when they go back to the parish, they are not recognized as leaders. They’re kept separate from the parish team.”

And third, young families and young adults need programs. “We are not doing enough. There’s a lot of proselytizing here, very significant. Those communities [Protestant groups] are small, people are known on a first name basis. Our churches are becoming too large,” said Saldana. “When Hispanic Catholics are sharing facilities and programs with mainstream churches,” he said, “they sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”

Fr. Ovidio Pecharroman, director of the Hispanic apostolate in the Arlington, Va., diocese, said that to the Hispanic newcomer the U.S. Catholic church “is cold -- in some dioceses more than others -- detached, distant. When you come from a culture in which the traits are proximity, hospitality and openness, then the frontal attack is very strong. It can provoke a reaction of ‘I am not welcome here,’ and ‘I will go to a sect that will open their arms to me.’ ”

Pecharroman directs the diocese’s Pastoral Formation Institute that in seven years has trained more than 1,000 Hispanic Catholics as catechists and pastoral workers.

Pecharroman said he believes the Arlington diocese, with 63 parishes and 336,000 Catholics, has some 220,000 Hispanic Catholics, the majority not registered. Spanish-language Masses are celebrated in 25 parishes for a Spanish-speaking population unlike any other in the country. The range is from a large majority of very poor people to highly educated embassy and international organization officials serving in the U.S. capital. The institute trains workers in five areas: cathechesis, liturgy, Christian life , charisms and youth.

The segments are led by a lay staff (U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs Secretariat staff are among those who teach at the institute) and attracts priests from outside the diocese to observe its work.

The shortest course is a 24-hour catechist training program, but the range is extensive, from theology to Christology to Spanish culture, offered Monday to Friday 7 to 9 p.m.

Pecharroman is a member of the secular institute Diocesan Priest Laborers. He has lived in the United States for 36 years and has directed the Arlington apostolate for six.

Rockford’s Hispanic Ministries director, Msgr. William Schuessler, who previously worked in Peru, said his diocese’s immediate problem is the absence of accurate figures. “I suspect there are 125,000 Hispanics. The local newspaper reports 31,000,” and the local deanery thinks about 15,000.

Where he started with 10 to 40 people at Mass a few years ago, now the churches are packed. The diocese’s Escuela de Formacion Catolica is busy; several Hispanic candidates for the priesthood are in formation.

In Atlanta, director Saldana said, the diocese sends all its seminarians -- who are expected to learn Spanish -- to inculturation programs run in the El Paso, Texas, diocese, and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico.

“There’s continuing awareness at the diocesan level that every office needs to respond, and to have bilingual personnel,” he said. For example, the education department runs the Hispanic lay leadership programs, and other programs that in a different diocese might have a separate institute. Saldana, who has been Hispanic ministry director for 11 years, is proud of the formation retreats for the younger population and the Hispanic catechist training for a diocese where some rural parishes in less than a decade have become majority Hispanic.

“Practicing guesstimates,” said Saldana, “there’s a half a million Hispanic population out there and it’s mainly invisible.” Yet the diocese does not run a training program for evangelists, he said. “In all honesty, we leave that up to particular parishes. There are so many, we cannot be everywhere.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000