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Catholic Education

To mend rift U.S. church needs to embrace gifts of Latinos

Anaheim, Calif.

Hispanic theologian and El Paso, Texas, pastor Msgr. Arturo J. Banuelas asked one question and provoked another. He asked, “Are we Latinos to be seen as a blessing or as a pastoral problem to solve?”

His 500-plus Latino listeners, jammed into a standing-room-only session at the 2002 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress here, knew what he was really asking: With more than a third of U.S. Catholics now Latino, how will this church effectively minister to an American Catholic people increasingly Latin American in heritage and in religious experience?

To Banuelas, a cofounder of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States, the answer is simple. “We need to look at the church as a diverse body of Christ. We must, then, affirm the religiosity of Latinos and their daily life.”

There were more than 21,000 participants at the Feb. 15-17 congress. Five thousand-plus of those attended the Spanish-only sessions, and that figure climbs dramatically with each succeeding congress.

NCR sought reactions to Banuelas’ implied challenge to the church among those Latino participants.

Daniel Robles, a teacher and a pastoral minister at Our Lady of Lourdes in East Los Angeles, said, “The church doesn’t know its audience. There’s a big rift. Some parishes are doing it right, but when you go to others, you notice it.” The “it” Robles referred to is the affirmation or denial of Latino religious expressions by mainstream Euro-American parishes.

Veronica Farjado, a parishioner in East Los Angeles, said there are two sides to the issue. While some mainstream Euro-American churches neglect the need for Latino expression in the liturgy and parish life, those parishes don’t bear all the blame, she said.

“A lot of time we Latinos never really stick up for who we are. We need a lot of guts to do so,” said Farjado.

Many parishes have responded to the influx of Latinos in their community by offering bilingual and/or Spanish-only Masses. Yet, such efforts only scratch the surface of what Latinos say are much deeper issues between them and the traditional Euro-American Catholic church.

Many Latinos at the Congress spoke about their experiences of Catholicism in traditional Euro-American parishes as “worship from the neck up.” Parish worship is seen as “too rigid,” and many Latinos feel they cannot express themselves fully in such settings.

This is one reason why Pentecostal and evangelical denominations have been able to make inroads among the once solidly Catholic Latino community in the United States. These denominations have a greater willingness to accept the “affective” dimensions of Latino religious expressions, noted Congress speaker Roberto Goizueta, Boston College theology professor.

Armando Robles, brother of Daniel, said Latinos also face a language difficulty in building support for their cultural expression of religion.

Nearly one in 10 Latinos in the United States doesn’t speak Spanish, and when they attend Spanish-only religious services, said Robles, “they can’t relate spiritually. But, they also know they don’t want to lose this part of their culture.”

Robles said that pastoral ministers working in such parishes need to be aware of the many language and cultural differences that exist within the U.S. Latino culture. The success of such communities with Spanish and non-Spanish speaking Latino populations, he said, lies in a commitment to build a community that integrates many aspects of Latino religious and cultural expressions.

With or without a priest

Parishes that want thriving Latino communities, said Goizueta, must reach out to Latino community leaders. He noted that Latinos have a long history of religious worship and expression in small communities, with or without the presence of a priest.

As a result, religious leadership in a community may be invested in a Latino’s abuelita (grandmother) or perhaps a compadre (godparent), rather than in a parish priest. It’s a reality that many Euro-Americans have difficulty with, said Goizueta.

Several of the participants that NCR spoke to said they knew of parishes that had effectively reached community leaders. These parishes collaborated with Latino community leaders in planning feast days and invited them to develop ways to make worship more meaningful.

Yet, in almost the same breath, these same participants knew of other parishes that merely see Latino community leaders as nothing more than Spanish translators for the traditional weekly worship sheet. It is this issue that crystallizes for many Latinos their identity as being a “second-class citizen” in the larger Euro-American Catholic church.

“We’re being asked to be volunteers, not to be involved,” said Daniel Robles.

The overarching problem, as Banuelas, Goizueta and other Latino speakers at this year’s congress alluded to, is whether or not “popular Catholicism” as defined by the U.S. Latino culture will be seen as an authentic religious expression by the larger Euro-American church.

Popular Catholicism, as many Latino theologians note, is more than rituals and practices, but is a central way of perceiving human reality. It is a mixture of both the sacred and the profane, said Goizueta, and for many Latinos, they define themselves as “a people with an extremely sacramental notion of reality.”

As such, religious devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe or her feast on Dec. 12 are seen as real and direct expressions of God interacting with humanity for many Latinos throughout the United States.

A representative figure of what Goizueta and other Latino theologians call the “cultural and religious mestizaje [mixture]” of Latinos in the United States, Guadalupe is indicative of how popular Catholicism is misunderstood and underappreciated in the United States.

“I suspect that a lot of Euro-American Catholics who had to leave behind their devotions are now looking at Latinos and saying ‘I don’t want to be associated with this brand of Catholicism,’ ” noted Goizueta.

One indicator of this feeling is that many Latino devotions and feasts are described in liturgical manuals as para-liturgical celebrations. To Goizueta and other Latino theologians, what this says to the Latino community is “we’re telling people who experience God most closely in such celebrations that it’s an inferior experience.”

“However, in some ways,” said Goizueta, “the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is really an Easter experience for Latinos.”

The challenge, as he and many of the congress participants noted, is how to integrate the U.S. Latino community without forcing its members to lose their highly regarded religious expressions.

“We should be seen as a gift that needs to be embraced,” said Banuelas. “And the church’s pastoral emphases should be geared toward evangelization, not assimilation.”

César A. Diaz is a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002