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Vatican II: 40 years later

Council a vital boost to Hispanic identity


As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, it is good to reflect on how that event has affected the Hispanic community. Since the majority of my people are Catholic, all the changes in our church have a great impact, but in different ways and degrees. We welcomed the use of vernacular languages in our liturgical celebrations. But for the majority in our communities the change was not immediately experienced, since Mass was celebrated in English and it was hard to find a priest willing to preside in Spanish. When we were able to have a Hispanic or bilingual priest, our celebration was relegated to the church basement and scheduled at an inconvenient time. We felt that we were continuing to be second-class Catholics.

However, thanks to God and to many efforts of our leaders during these 40 years, the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy established a subcommittee for the revision, translation and publication of liturgical rituals in Spanish even before this language was approved as a liturgical language for the United States. In 1970, Patricio F. Flores was named the first Mexican-American bishop, and several Hispanic priests became pastors. Up to this point, few Hispanic priests had been named to any position of leadership. Now many dioceses are requiring that seminarians learn Spanish.

Today we can celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments in our own language and with our own customs, thanks to Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which states: “If certain locales traditionally use other praiseworthy customs and ceremonies when celebrating the sacrament of matrimony, this sacred synod earnestly desires that these by all means be retained.” As a result, Hispanic Catholic weddings now incorporate traditional customs like the lazo and the arras. The lazo is a garland, often made of ceramic flowers, that is placed around the shoulders of the bride and groom as a sign that they are now one. The arras is another popular custom in which a small sum of money, usually 13 dimes, is given to the newlyweds by their godparents and then shared between the two -- another symbol that what they each have individually they now share together as a couple.

Together with the use of the Spanish language, we have had more opportunities to celebrate with our own traditions and to share with the wider church the wealth of our popular expressions of faith. Before Vatican II we were ashamed of some of our practices. Pope Paul VI confessed to the church’s long suspicion of inculturation when he wrote in “Evangelization in the Modern World”: “These expressions were for a long time regarded as less pure and were sometimes despised [by the church], but today they are almost everywhere being rediscovered.”

We, ourselves as Hispanics, have studied more deeply the theological and scriptural basis of these expressions of faith, their cultural values, and their ability to communicate the Good News. They help us to fulfill the desire of Vatican II that calls for an “active, full, and meaningful participation” in our liturgical celebrations. We rejoice in how far the church’s magisterium has come when we read in the document of the synod of the Americas, “without these expressions our faith is weakened” (“The Church in America”). In the Spanish translation, this statement has even more beautiful and stronger symbolism: “Their absence leads to a shipwreck of faith.”

I rejoiced when Pope John Paul II named Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Mother and Evangelizer of America,” meaning the whole continent was being placed under her protection. And what a joy and what pride when the Holy Father canonized St. Juan Diego, one of our own people.

Even before the council, some efforts were made to respond to the needs of Hispanic communities. Beginning in 1945 in San Antonio, the late Archbishop Robert E. Lucey began to address the lack of instruction in the faith among Hispanic people. He was concerned that religious instruction was not being offered in Spanish and that physical facilities to hold classes and celebrate Eucharist were not being made available to these Spanish-speaking communities. Later on, the U.S. bishops’ conference assumed the responsibility for nationwide pastoral care of Hispanic people. They founded the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, which today continues to respond to many of our needs as our numbers grow.

Several dioceses have organized offices for Hispanic ministry. This has been both a blessing and a hindrance, since anything that is related to Hispanic communities is passed on to this office. The result is that many of us feel again that we are a “problem” or a “burden” for all the other diocesan services when we go to ask for a specific service. This arrangement also has contributed to the burnout of several great leaders, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, who tried to respond to every need -- from immigration papers to food and shelter, to the great lack of opportunities and resources for faith development, to the lack of resources for overall needs in the Latino/Hispanic communities, and last but not least, the lack of resources for liturgical celebrations in Spanish.

Through some Hispanic leaders at the national, regional and diocesan levels, together with many efforts from people in our communities, we have been able to organize several groups to respond to our needs. First among these would be two organizations for Hispanic priests and women religious: PADRES -- Padres Asociados para los Derechos Religiosos, Educativos y Sociales, which translates as Priests Associated for Religious, Educational and Social Rights -- and Las Hermanas, the Sisters. An additional key resource is the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, which is a national center founded in 1972 “to empower leadership through faith and culture.” MACC in many ways was the pioneer for the other regional and diocesan pastoral institutes and centers for Hispanics, like Miami’s South East Pastoral Institute.

Together, all these institutos have formed the Federación de Institutos Pastorales (Federation of Pastoral Institutes). A wide range of ministries is represented by several other national organizations, such as the Instituto Nacional Hispano de Liturgia (National Hispanic Institute for Liturgy); the Asociación Nacional de Sacerdotes Hispanos (National Association of Hispanic Priests), which founded the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States and its publication, the Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology; the Asociación Nacional de Diáconos Hispanos (National Association of Hispanic Deacons) and the National Organization of Hispanic Catechists.

Church personnel working in the Hispanic community have also helped launch several other groups, such as the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network. This group falls under the umbrella of Hispanic ministry, since most of the people it serves are Hispanic. Individual Catholics and small groups, in some cases with support from dioceses and/or parishes, created other organizations to help include Hispanics in U.S. political, economic and social life. Among these are Communities Organized for Public Service; EPISO (El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization); UNO (Spanish for “one” and an acronym for United Neighborhood Organizations), the Chicago area’s largest Hispanic community-based organization; United Farm Workers; Southwest Voters Registration Office and many others.

Yet, even though we, the Hispanic people, have made great efforts to take our rightful place in our church, there are still some key issues that all of us in the Catholic church need to address. According to a study conducted by Salvatorian Fr. Raúl Gómez and Dr. Manuel A. Vásquez, “Assessing Hispanic Ministry in Eight Dioceses,” the issues that surfaced are: leadership development and formation at all levels; becoming a church of integration as opposed to one of assimilation; tension between multiplicity and unity in the parish; increasing Hispanic diversity; intergenerational conflicts; tension between popular religiosity and evangelization; tension between a pastoral focus on the sacraments and one stressing social justice; the current restricted view of stewardship; ministering effectively to Hispanic youth; the loss of Hispanics to other faiths; and welcoming Hispanics within an increasingly culturally diverse church.

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, a well-known Hispanic theologian and pastoral leader, summarizes the development within and growth and maturation of the Catholic Hispanic community since the council in his book Galilean Journey: “Vatican Council II had told us we had a right to our heritage, to our art and music, to our traditions, to our language, to our festivals, and to our culture. It reminded us that this was ‘the way of the Incarnation.’ ”

All of us Hispanics have become ever more aware of the richness of our heritage, which knits together our faith and our culture. Therefore, I thank God that the Second Vatican Council marked for the Latino community, the path for us to express culturally our faith with great pride, joy and hope.

We know that there is still a lot of work to be done in the Lord’s vineyard. As Hispanics we still struggle. We are encouraged to continue going to our bishops, pastors and leaders to request what we need. But at the same time we are becoming more responsible for our own baptismal call to follow Christ.

Our Lady of Guadalupe sent St. Juan Diego to his bishop (and the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga) with these words: “Listen and hear in your heart, my most beloved son: That which scares you and troubles you is nothing; do not let your countenance and heart be troubled; … you are my ambassador; in you I place all my trust.”

We, simple Juan Diegos of our own era, must realize that we are all responsible and accountable to God and to our church and society for the constant building of the temple of God, for all the peoples of the world hunger and thirst for justice, peace and harmony. With Jesus and Mary our Mother we will go forward!

Rosa María Icaza is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio. Involved in Hispanic ministry since 1978, she is a faculty member at the Mexican American Cultural Center, a member of the Subcommittee on the Liturgy in Spanish of the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy. She is also a consultant for the National Institute of Liturgy in Spanish and was its president for six years.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002