Cover story -- Texas
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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- CNS/Paul Haring

Pilgrims hold a Texas flag as they wait to enter a special audience with Pope Benedict XVI Nov. 26 at the Vatican. Catholics from the Galveston-Houston archdiocese were on hand to see their archbishop become a cardinal at the Nov. 24 consistory.
Texas: new Catholic frontier

Houston/Johnson City/Austin/San Antonio/Dallas

To the uninitiated, attempts to describe the congregation at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in tiny Johnson City, Texas, could sound like a routine from a stand-up comedian: “A white rancher, a Mexican day laborer and a Nigerian prince walk into a parish.” Change “parish” to “bar,” and you’ve got a setup in search of a punch line.

John L. Allen travels across the Lone Star State to learn more about the challenges the state's new, first-ever cardinal faces as he settles in. Key findings: Parishes are overflowing, immigration keeps leaders hopping, and stereotypes don't apply.

This is no joke, however, but the social reality in Johnson City, so named because it’s the hometown of former President Lyndon Johnson, population 1,500 on a good day.

The small parish of 70 families has traditionally been mostly white -- or, in the argot of the southwest, “Anglo” -- descendants of European Catholics who settled in Texas after its 1836 declaration of independence from Mexico. (The first Polish colony in the United States, for example, was in Panna Maria, two hours to the south.) The parish also draws a few Tejanos, meaning Hispanics who have lived in Texas for generations, in some cases since the Spanish colonial era. (The unofficial Tejano motto is, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”) There’s a small but growing number of recent immigrants from Mexico, often drawn to work on ranches or in service industries.

The improbable pastor of this Tex-Mex mix is Fr. Nichodemus Ejimabo, an Ibo tribesman from Orlu state in eastern Nigeria. The mere presence of a Nigerian in rural Texas would, perhaps, be noteworthy enough, but Ejimabo is no ordinary Nigerian. Back home, his father is a village chief, making Ejimabo an Ibo prince. He’s also a former striker on the Nigerian national soccer team, the “Super Eagles.”

Johnson City thus offers a metaphor for today’s Texas, where dramatic population growth and accelerating cultural diversity are shaping the new face -- or, perhaps more accurately, a whole series of new faces -- of American Catholicism.

Recognizing the importance of Texas, Pope Benedict XVI recently named Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese a cardinal, the state’s first-ever prince of the church. DiNardo said that Benedict told him, “Texas needed a cardinal,” and while there’s little reason to believe the pope had Johnson City specifically in mind, the place helps make his point.

--Bret Gerbe

Fr. Nichodemus Ejimabo gets a hug from a parishioner.

Chatting recently after Mass at Good Shepherd, one longtime parishioner told NCR that not only was Ejimabo the first African priest he’d ever met, he was the first black priest. In fact, he was the first black man with whom he’d ever really been on speaking terms.

Aware of this cultural gap, Ejimabo tweaks his message to play to Texan sensibilities. In describing the temptations of Christ, for example, he has Satan cajoling Jesus to turn the stones into hamburger rather than bread -- apparently on the assumption that a parish that includes a number of cattlemen would respond better to that image.

He also frequently interrupts his homily to engage his flock. During an 11 a.m. service in nearby Blanco, for example, he broke off from a meditation on the spiritual meaning of Lent to ask one woman if her mother was home from the hospital.

“Is she drinking coffee?” he asked.

“Nope,” the woman said.


“Yup,” came the reply, bringing a round of chuckles, as if to confirm that Mom is back to her old self.

Ejimabo then resumed his impassioned preaching, leaving his congregation seemingly delighted, if occasionally straining to follow his rather thick African accent.

Welcome to the new Catholic frontier in the Lone Star State.

Dramatic growth

If one were to pick a single word to capture the Catholic reality in Texas today, it would have to be “growth.” While dioceses in other parts of the country are closing schools and clustering parishes, in Texas Catholic churches are overflowing, driven above all by massive waves of Hispanic immigration since the early 1990s, but also significant gains in other ethnic communities such as Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indians and Nigerians.

“In some parts of our nation, you’re trying to resurrect the faith. Here, you’re just trying to keep up with how fast it’s growing,” said Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas.

Signs of expansion are ubiquitous. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Houston, for example, serves a staggering total of 7,600 families, meaning roughly 23,000 people, making it in some ways a Catholic version of Houston’s famous “megachurches.” In Garland, a largely Hispanic region of Dallas, another parish named Good Shepherd holds 11 Masses over the weekend, with two Saturday night and nine on Sunday, beginning at 7:15 a.m. and ending at 7:30 p.m. The seating capacity is 450, but the smallest crowd is usually more than 500. (“We have a very understanding fire marshal,” said Fr. Robert Williams, the pastor.) Mass-goers flow into the attached school, sometimes following the Mass on loudspeakers in the hallways and cafeteria.

“I firmly believe there are thousands of Hispanics who do not go to a Catholic Mass in this diocese on Sunday simply because they cannot find a place to sit,” Williams said.

-- CNS/Paul Haring

Hispanic Catholics from the Galveston-Houston archdiocese greet new Cardinal Daniel DiNardo during a reception at the Pontifical North American College in Rome Nov. 24.

Texas may also be among the few places in America where Catholic dioceses are entering local real estate markets primarily as buyers rather than sellers. In Austin, Bishop Gregory Aymond said he’s looking at six sites to open new parishes. In Dallas, Farrell said he could open 12 to 15 new parishes tomorrow, if resources weren’t an issue, and not meet the need. DiNardo said that when he arrived in Houston, his predecessor, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, told him he could open four parishes immediately and still be behind the curve. Currently, DiNardo said, the archdiocese is opening two new parishes.

With an estimated Catholic population today of 6.5 million, Texas is the third-largest Catholic state in America, after California and New York, and coming up fast on the second position. Between 2005 and 2008 alone, according to the Official Catholic Directory, New York lost 300,000 Catholics and Texas gained 350,000.

Much of that gain stems from Catholics moving to the state and registering with parishes, but much, too, leaders say, is the result of Hispanic immigrants who were formerly nominal Catholics but are seeking full membership in a parish. That accounts for the preponderance of the more than 8,000 Catholics who went through the RCIA program in the state’s 15 dioceses this year and were either baptized or confirmed on Holy Saturday.

Looking at future projections compiled by Lynn Rossol of the Pastoral Planning and Research Office in Dallas is an eye-popping exercise. By 2015, according to her data, Hispanics should outnumber Anglos in Texas 11.8 million to 11.7 million. By 2040, which is as far out as the projections go, and assuming that the border isn’t completely sealed off, the population of Texas should be around 45 million, with Anglos at 11.7 million and Hispanics an astonishing 26.1 million.

(Williams, the pastor in Garland, believes that attempts to close the border would be an exercise in futility. “Show me a 15-foot wall,” as he puts it, “and I’ll show you a 16-foot ladder.”)

By midcentury, Texas could plausibly have at least six dioceses with a Catholic population in excess of 2 million: Austin, Brownsville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Galveston/Houston and San Antonio.

It’s not as if Catholicism arrived in Texas yesterday. The first Christian presence in Texas came with the foundation of Catholic missions by Spanish Franciscans in the 1700s; in the area around San Antonio, several of those missions are still functioning parish communities. In the era of Spanish rule, in fact, Catholicism was the established church of Texas. Legendary frontier heroes such as Samuel Austin and Sam Houston were required to declare themselves Catholic in order to hold land grants from the colonial authorities. Both did so, perhaps under the logic that “Texas is worth a Mass,” although neither was apparently driven by real conviction -- Austin was a Jeffersonian deist, and Houston later joined the Know-Nothing party and became a Baptist.

Cardinal clout

Despite these deep Texas roots, Catholicism in some ways has long played second fiddle in terms of visibility and social influence to evangelical Protestantism, especially the Baptists. According to the Texas Almanac, the state has the largest number of evangelicals in the country, over 5 million. Catholicism’s subaltern status, however, is changing along with the state’s demographics.

Here’s one telling sign that a Catholic moment has arrived. In a recent Texas Monthly cover story about “35 People Who Will Shape Our Future,” DiNardo was the fourth name on the list, and in effect the only religious leader. (There was an evangelical pastor, but it was someone better known as a gospel singer.)

If there’s one thing the outside world seems to grasp about Catholicism it’s the difference between a cardinal and everyone else, and there are clear signs that having a “red hat” in the state gives the church extra clout. A week after DiNardo’s nomination was announced, for example, Gov. Rick Perry held an interfaith luncheon in his honor. According to longtime observers, it was the first time a Texas governor has ever held an event to honor a Catholic prelate. Church lobbyists also said that a prominent legislator from south Texas made an appointment to see DiNardo shortly after his nomination, and promised to change his vote to support school choice.

Pope in U.S.
Pope Benedict XVI will not visit the Lone Star State on his upcoming U.S. visit (see story). But if he did, he’d find Catholicism in Texas dramatically changed since his previous visits (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in 1984 and 1991.

DiNardo, a native of Ohio and the former archbishop coadjutor in Galveston-Houston, was elevated to cardinal in November and installed as cardinal of the archdiocese Jan. 31.

Occasionally, the dizzying pace of change driven by Texas’ growth can have almost comic consequences. For example, in 2005, the state legislature held an open hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. A man showed up dressed in a cassock, zucchetto, and pectoral cross, claiming to be a Catholic bishop and asking to give testimony. Escorted to a microphone, he proceeded to tell the shocked assembly, on live television, that the Catholic church supported gay marriage because “all God’s children should be loved.”

Jennifer Carr Allmon, today the associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, was working for the Galveston-Houston archdiocese at the time and happened to be at the legislature that day. She laughingly recalled that by the time she could Google the guy’s name to see if he was legitimate, he was already at the microphone. Such a ruse would have been harder to pull off not so long ago, when Texas had just half its present number of 15 dioceses and a mere handful of bishops.

Cultural stew

“Hispanicization” is undoubtedly the biggest megatrend currently reshaping Texas, but observers caution that it’s important not to treat Hispanics as a monolith. Carr Allmon, for example, said that when Houston not long ago sponsored a “Justice for Immigrants” day, leaders went around the diocese to meet with Catholics and to encourage them to tell their immigrant stories, whether it was Irish immigration in the 19th century or Vietnamese in the mid-20th. Inevitably, she said, there would be a group of Hispanics insisting that they didn’t have an “immigrant story.”

“I was born here, and my family has been living in Texas for eight generations. Don’t tell me I’m not a native,” she said, describing the reaction.

DiNardo added that sometimes Hispanics from Central and Latin America feel overshadowed by the huge Mexican presence.

“I get invitations to all their celebrations. I try to get to as many as I can, but if I’m not able to make it, there can be an impression that we’re paying too much attention to the Mexican-American experience at the expense of others,” he said.

Moreover, the Hispanic element is just one ingredient in an increasingly complex cultural stew.

-- Catholic Spirit/Austin

During the 2007 Texas State Legislative Session, Catholic school students from across the state visited the state capitol to express their opinion on school choice.

There’s a sizeable Vietnamese Catholic community, including the striking Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Houston, built in the style of a pagoda complete with dragon-style gargoyles. Other major Asian Catholic communities in Texas include Filipinos, Indians, Koreans and Chinese. In a sign of the times, Bishop Farrell in Dallas, an Irishman, was recently pictured on the front page of the Texas Catholic in full Chinese dress celebrating a liturgy for a local Chinese community.

Texas also has growing pockets of immigrants from Africa, including Nigerians drawn by the oil industry, as well as a traditional base of African-American Catholics concentrated around Beaumont and Houston. (Here too one has to make careful distinctions, since African-American Catholicism in Texas encompasses both “Creole Catholics” with roots in Louisiana, whose parishes hold festivals featuring zydeco music and food, as well as communities composed of descendants of freed Texas slaves, some of whom today are wealthy civic leaders.)

All this comes on top of a continuing pattern of “internal migration” from the Northeast and the Midwest, as people come to Texas in search of warmer climates and economic opportunity. One sees this especially clearly in Austin, where proximity to four universities (the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas State), combined with the state capitol and a growing high-tech industry, are fueling major growth in the Anglo population too.

The result is a church in Texas that’s far more than a simple fusion of Anglo and Hispanic cultures. DiNardo has coined a phrase for the jumble of peoples, languages and experiences: “happy chaos.”

Such diversity has long created deep contrasts in Catholic experiences. Holy Cross Br. Richard Daly, former director of the Texas Catholic Conference, has identified five distinct regions within Texas, which he says have five distinct Catholic cultures:

  • Central Texas, where the presence of European Catholic immigrants from the 19th century has traditionally been strong, and where still today one can find intact ethnic communities in towns such as Czestochowa and Weimar;
  • Deep East Texas, conventionally reckoned as Baptist country and, at least traditionally, mostly Anglo;
  • The Coastal Bend, including the Beaumont area, which Daly describes as “really belonging to Louisiana,” and with a strong African-American community;
  • North and West Texas, including Dallas/Fort Worth, traditionally the deepest crimson patch of Texas’ “red state” ethos;
  • The border area and South Texas, including San Antonio and Browns-ville, where Catholics are the overwhelming cultural majority and almost entirely Hispanic.

Differences across these regions can be striking indeed. In the Tyler diocese in East Texas, for example, Catholics are roughly 4.4 percent of the population, and the experience of being a small minority sometimes breeds a fierce sense of Catholic pride.

-- Chronicle/Smiley N. Pool

Fr. R. Troy Gately, Rector of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, is surrounded by a group of nuns as they walk across St. Joseph Parkway to the new co-cathedral  April 1 in Houston.

Msgr. Milam Joseph, son of Lebanese immigrants to Texas, episcopal vicar in the Dallas diocese, was for many years a pastor in Tyler. He tells a story from some years ago about confronting a powerful Baptist minister who published an article critical of the Catholic church in the local newspaper. The minister publicly apologized, and Joseph described the reaction of one of his parishioners: “I’ve lived here all my life,” Joseph recalled the parishioner telling him, “and this is the first time somebody’s ever brought one of those bastards to his knees!”

Tensions and ‘transfer’

Though the ecumenical climate has improved dramatically, old tensions between evangelicals and Catholics still surface. Cynthia Colbert, who heads Catholic Charities in Austin, said that not long ago area Catholics noticed that an evangelical church was running a food bank in the same zip code as a large Catholic operation, and so they proposed working together. The evangelical response, she said, was that a joint project probably wouldn’t work because “we’re not sure about your theology.”

Yet in zones where Catholics and evangelicals live cheek by jowl, one can also sometimes detect traces of “evangelical transfer,” meaning ways in which the evangelical ethos shapes Catholic life. Fr. David Konderla, director of the sprawling St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M University, says it sometimes influences the way Texas Catholics pray.

“At our student group meetings, ask a Catholic kid to pray and rather than reciting the ‘Hail Mary’ they’re probably going to say something like: ‘Father, we really just thank you Lord, we just want to give praise to you,’ ” Konderla said. “It sounds very much like what they hear from their Protestant friends in the dorms and sororities.”

It’s an insight that Deacon John De La Garza, campus minister at the University of Texas, echoes. “It’s coming right off that evangelical television screen,” he said.

“Evangelical transfer” can also be found at Houston’s Catholic Charismatic Center, with a central sanctuary that seats 2,500 people, resembling the look and feel of a megachurch. That’s not entirely an accident, given that America’s largest nondenominational megachurch, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, is just about 10 minutes away. At the center, one finds many converts and “reverts” who say they had been drawn to Lakewood, but found they can get the same high-octane, spirit-filled style of praise and worship along with the depth of Catholic faith and sacramental life.

-- CNS/Danny Ramirez, Rio Grande Catholic

Approximately 1,000 parishioners from 15 parishes in the  El Paso diocese participate in a three-mile walk to the mountaintop shrine of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) on the U.S.-Mexican border June 10, 2006, in a Justice for Immigrants campaign pilgrimage.

Joseph Smith drives 32 miles each way to come to the Charismatic Center three times a week, and said: “The Catholic church might deny it until it’s blue in the face, but we pushed the Holy Spirit out through the back door. But now it’s back in the church.”

San Antonio, by way of contrast, where Catholics are an 85 percent majority, is perhaps less susceptible to evangelical transfer, because it’s had a pervasively Catholic ethos for more than 300 years.

“The secular and the sacred are mixed together here all the time,” said Fr. David Garcia, a popular local priest who served as rector of San Fernando Cathedral and secretary to former Archbishop Patrick Flores. Garcia comes from a proud Tejano family in south Texas; he still draws a check for $2.30 every month for gas royalties from a land grant his family has held since the Spanish era.

“We do things here that would probably cause people in the North to go ballistic,” Garcia said.

For example, every year the San Antonio City Council goes to the cathedral for a blessing, a tradition that dates from the Spanish colonial era. An annual Via Crucis procession that winds through city streets and draws upwards of 20,000 people, Garcia said, is organized with extensive cooperation from city officials.

The Catholic character of the city was evident on a recent Thursday morning in mid-February when Garcia and Archbishop Jose Gomez held a news conference to launch a $15 million capital campaign to restore the city’s historic Spanish-era missions. An all-star lineup of local CEOs and politicians turned out to support the effort, and by morning’s end the campaign had already tallied $4.2 million in pledges.

One VIP who turned up was Red McCombs, a local car dealer who struck it big and went on to become part owner of the San Antonio Spurs and, for a while, owner of the Minnesota Vikings. A Baptist with a deep Texas twang, McCombs said he was “deeply grateful” for the Catholic missionaries who settled the San Antonio area.

“Without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have the opportunities we have today,” McCombs said. “Religion, medicine, the arts ... the Catholic church was thinking about all that way before anybody else. I’m not Catholic, but I know it’s the Catholics who came here so many years ago who made this possible for all of us.”

With that, McCombs turned and planted a loud kiss on the cheek of a startled, but beaming, Garcia.

Yet the complexities of Texas are a perennial challenge to stereotypes. Despite the fact that San Antonio’s Catholic community is at least 85 percent Hispanic, for example, that doesn’t mean it’s a leader in “Hispanic ministry.” The archdiocese doesn’t even have an office for Hispanic ministry, taking the view that the Catholic future here is bilingual and bicultural, rather than in the development of two parallel church structures.

“In my mind, San Antonio is what the rest of the United States is going to be 20 to 50 years from now,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio. “The majority of Catholics are going to be Hispanic, but they are going to be English-speaking.”

A defining challenge

Despite these strong regional contrasts, true of most of Texas is that massive immigration, mostly from Mexico, represents a defining social and pastoral reality.

The challenge is one part political, trying to respond to what Fiorenza describes as “this anti-immigration tsunami that’s coming at us.” Despite strong public statements from the Texas bishops in defense of immigrants, most observers say that Texas Catholics reflect the same divisions over immigration policy that course through the general population.

“Some people accuse the bishops of being on a bandwagon with the liberals,” DiNardo said. “For us, this is not just a secular political issue, but also a major human rights question.”

“Is it divisive?” DiNardo asked rhetorically. “Sure, and I know that by the letters I get.”

These divisions often defy stereotypes about who’s likely to be on what side. For example, Paul Engler of Amarillo may be one of the wealthiest Catholics in Texas; a cattleman, he rose to national prominence in the late 1990s by leading a lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey for comments warning against an outbreak of “mad cow” disease. Andrew Rivas, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said that Engler in some ways is a very conservative figure, but “he’s very supportive of immigration reform because 90 percent of his employees need help legalizing their status.”

-- Ruben R. Alfaro

The San Antonio City Council receives a blessing at San Fernando Cathedral in June 2007. The tradition dates from the Spanish colonial era.

Williams charges that some of the fiercest anti-immigrant rhetoric actually comes from recent arrivals without deep roots in the state.

“You have all these people who have never been around Hispanics before suddenly coming in and saying, ‘We’re losing our culture,’ ” Williams said. “I’ve lost friends by telling them, ‘You lost your culture when you left Wisconsin. This is Texas.’ It doesn’t change my culture when Hispanics move in, because that’s part of my culture.”

At another level, the challenge of immigration is humanitarian and pastoral, as Catholics scramble to care for new arrivals who are often poor, abused and exploited and sometimes caught in a Kafkaesque maze of shifting and seemingly arbitrary immigration policies.

A good place to watch the church in action at this level is Casa Juan Diego on Houston’s west side. It’s a sprawling welcome center for immigrants that includes shelters for men, women and children, food and clothing banks, a health clinic, and residences for sick and disabled people, all operated under the umbrella of the Catholic Worker movement.

Casa Juan Diego was founded by Mark and Louise Zwick, who spent a brief period in El Salvador during its bloody civil war in the 1970s and were radicalized by the experience. They created Casa Juan Diego to care for refugees fleeing violence in Central America, but today find themselves working with vast numbers of new immigrants, most from Mexico.

Among other services, Casa Juan Diego operates a residence for 15 sick and disabled people, as well as paying $500-$1,000 a month for long-term care for roughly 70 other people. In many cases, Louise Zwick said, these are undocumented immigrants who took high-risk, low-pay jobs to support themselves and their families, such as working on scaffolds on construction sites. If they get hurt, she said, they’re basically on their own.

“Every day we get a call from a hospital social worker saying we have this person who has no family to take care of him,” Mark Zwick said. “He’s a paraplegic, or he’s paralyzed, or he just needs a few months to get on his feet. There’s no government support, there’s no disability, no Medicaid, nothing. We take care of him.”

-- Brandon Wade

Mass at Good Shepherd Parish in Garland, Texas, April 6

The Zwicks said that Casa Juan Diego has Mass every Wednesday evening, and it’s customary for each immigrant to tell the story of how they arrived.

Although immigration may be a divisive matter politically, the Zwicks said they’ve enjoyed strong support for their humanitarian work -- despite the fact, as Mark Zwick put it, “we’re breaking the law 10 times every day” by harboring and transporting undocumented persons.

Mark Zwick illustrated how Texas Catholics can show a surprising capacity to harmonize their politics and their individual compassion.

“Once we were invited to give a presentation in a parish and somebody complained, saying he didn’t want those ‘communists,’ ” Zwick said. “The pastor told me that he calmed the guy down by saying, ‘It’s OK. They may be communists, but they’re our communists!’ ”

A social tradition

Perhaps because Catholicism here has always been an immigrant church, it has a deep tradition of progressive social engagement.

In San Antonio, for example, Catholicism has long been the backbone of “Communities Organized for Public Service” and the Metro Alliance, a Saul Alinsky-inspired neighborhood activist group. Since the early 1970s, COPS has managed to generate over a billion dollars in city, county, state and federal public funds, including a community college, drainage systems, new housing and housing rehabilitation, public parks, health clinics, public libraries and other urban improvements.

San Antonio’s heritage reaches back to the era of Archbishop Robert Lucey, who headed the archdiocese from 1941 to 1969. Although a traditionalist in church affairs, Lucey was also staunchly pro-labor. That tradition came to full flower under Flores, the first Mexican-American archbishop in the United States, himself the son of poor migrants who moved around the Panhandle area of the state picking cotton.

Austin is the home of the state’s ambitious “Parish Social Ministry” program, founded by Austin’s former bishop John McCarthy, which encourages parishes to be active in both direct charitable service and social advocacy.

This social consciousness has spread around the state, even into improbable locales. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, for example, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Tyler (later to become the cathedral of the new diocese of Tyler) emerged as a driving force behind a landmark Supreme Court case on immigrant rights.

-- Ruben R. Alfaro

Fr. David Garcia baptizes RCIA candidate Daniel Ortiz on Holy Saturday, March 22, at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio.

In 1975, Texas adopted a law authorizing local school districts to deny enrollment to children who were in the country illegally. When the school district in Tyler turned away several children whose families attended Immaculate Conception Church, they reached out to Joseph, the pastor at the time. He in turn contacted the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which dispatched lawyers to Tyler.

“The first interviews happened in the church basement,” Joseph said. “Everybody knew that the Catholics were behind it.”

That stand drew strong support from the state’s bishops. McCarthy bitingly said that denying public education to undocumented children was reminiscent “of the policy after the Civil War to keep certain people poor in order to have somebody to bring in the cotton.”

In the end, the Supreme Court struck down the Texas law in 1982’s Plyler v. Doe, holding that “the creation and perpetration of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries” did not advance any substantial state purpose.” The case has been repeatedly invoked as a precedent for the provision of public services to immigrants.

Defining traits

One could go on listing other defining traits of Texas Catholicism. Fr. Charles Curran, who resettled to Southern Methodist University after leaving The Catholic University of America 16 years ago amid controversy over his liberal positions on sexual morality, said he’s been struck by the strong ecumenical and interreligious flavor of Catholicism in the state, which he attributes in part to the perception of being a minority surrounded by an evangelical majority.

Others point to a “can-do,” frontier spirit in Texas that also permeates religious life. For example, it’s a striking fact that four of the six Anglican Use parishes in the United States, operating under a “Pastoral Provision” set up in 1980 to accommodate breakaway Episcopalians who wished to join the Catholic church while retaining elements of their Anglican heritage, are located in Texas.

Clinton Brand, a parishioner at the Anglican Use parish in Houston, Our Lady of Walsingham, described the move as typically Texan: “These people decided that the pope said we can do this, so by God we’re going to do it.”

DiNardo said that sometimes this spirit of local initiative can have its downside, producing Catholics with a strong commitment to the parish but a somewhat weak sense of the diocese or universal church. Every now and then, he laughed, this kind of Texas Catholic strikes him as “congregationalists with sacraments.”

Several observers also say that Texas’ wide-open spaces and distance from centers of national attention in the Northeast breed a capacity to innovate that one doesn’t always find elsewhere. In Austin, for example, Aymond has emerged as a national pioneer in lay ministry. His diocese offers scholarships for laypeople to obtain master’s degrees in theology, and runs successful certificate programs both in lay ministry and spiritual direction.

“There will always be a place for the ordained, but Vatican II, not to mention the Acts of the Apostles, called us to collaboration with other people who are also called into ministry,” Aymond said.

In the end, however, Texas’ most important contribution to the broader Catholic conversation is likely to center on its capacity to manage growing cultural diversity. In that sense Texas may well be a harbinger of where the rest of the country is headed, given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates the Hispanic share of the American church is now 39 percent and climbing.

-- Chronicle/Melissa Phillip

In June 2007, Mark Zwick, left, of Casa Juan Diego in Houston talks about a nearby day-labor hiring hall that was closing.

Certainly Texas doesn’t yet have everything figured out. In the late 1990s, for example, St. Anne Parish, in an affluent zone of Houston, was roiled by conflict when a popular Hispanic catechist was dismissed, triggering a walkout by Hispanic leaders. Carr Allmon said the personnel dispute revealed deeper tensions in the parish between wealthy Anglos and the Hispanics who work in their homes, pump their gas, and so on. Though that episode happened a decade ago, it’s a reminder of potential conflicts just beneath the surface.

It’s not easy to bring such disparate groups together. One Houston pastor told the story of walking into church Sunday and instructing Mass-goers in Spanish to sing and pray in English, and the English-speakers to do the same in Spanish. His intent, he said, was to shake things up and produce a sense of common purpose. The actual result, he said, was that “every single person walked out mad.”

If managing diversity is the signal Texas challenge, then Ejimabo, the Nigerian pastor-prince out in Blanco and Johnson City, may have something to contribute. He recalled being asked by Aymond back in 2003 if he thought he could handle an assignment in a place where leadership from black Africans is not exactly part of the cultural heritage.

“That’s a Catholic church, and I’m a Catholic priest,” Ejimabo remembers telling Aymond. “I can work there. That’s what my ordination was all about.”

To date, Ejimabo says, that bit of theological theory has also been his experience -- he’s been accepted as a Catholic priest, surmounting differences of language or culture.

If Texas can foster that spirit on a large scale, perhaps the rest of the Catholic world will come to better understand the bumper stickers one sometimes sees on Texas roads: “I wasn’t born here,” they read, “but I got here as fast as I could.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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