Latinos bring ‘life, vitality’ to U.S. Catholic Church

| April 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

Sacred Heart parishioners in St. Paul pray the Stations of the Cross in Spanish on Good Friday. Photo by Jim Bovin / for The Catholic Spirit

The U.S. Catholic Church is at a “critical moment” in its history, said a panelist at a recent conference on immigration and the church. With Latinos making up more than half of U.S. population growth in the past decade, how the church responds to Latino newcomers will largely determine its future success.

“We are truly beginning a new historical cycle,” said Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. “The decisions that we make and the way we respond to [Latino immigrants] has everything to do with how alive, with how vital, with how engaged the faith of Jesus Christ in the Catholic tradition is going to be in this country.”

Latinos represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census. The fastest growing minority group, Latinos will soon surpass 50 million — approximately one in six Americans. Among U.S. children, Latinos are roughly one in four.

With 63 percent of Latinos in the U.S. identifying their religion as Catholic in the census, an increase in their numbers likely represents an increase in membership for the U.S. Catholic Church.

New style of Catholicism

Surveys have shown that more than half of the Latino Catholic community in this country has been influenced significantly by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and other ecclesial movements, Father Deck said at the March 21 event co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Catholic University of America.

“So there’s a style of Catholicism that Latinos are bringing to the [U.S.] Catholic Church,” Father Deck said.

He described that style as more “expressive,” with an emphasis on symbolism, ritual and sacraments, “a kind of Catholicism that is more focused on the celebratory or the festive aspects of our faith, a way of being Catholic that brings life, that brings vitality.”

Keeping Latino Catholics engaged in the faith will require an evangelization that respects their culture and language rather than trying to force people with different traditions to assimilate into the “American” style of church, Father Deck said. A U.S. church that is not accommodating risks driving Latino Catholics to other churches or to a secular lifestyle.

“We are Americanizing people out the front door of the Catholic Church,” he said.

In their 1987 “National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry” and its 2002 addendum, “Encuentro and Mission,” the U.S. bishops lay out a plan for integrating, rather than assimilating, U.S. Latino Catholics.

“Through a policy of assimilation,” the bishops said, “new immigrants are forced to give up their language, culture, values and traditions. . . . By [ecclesial] integration we mean that our Hispanic people are to be welcomed in our church institutions at all levels. They are to be served in their language when possible, and their cultural values and religious traditions are to be respected. Beyond that, we must work towards mutual enrichment through interaction among all cultures.”

Latino traditions, values

Latino Catholics bring to the U.S. church rich traditions and cultural values such as family unity, devotion to Mary and the saints, respect for elders and strong faith, said Estela Villagrán Manan­cero, a member of the archdiocesan Parish Services Team who specializes in Latino ministry.

The Christian value of communion is second nature for many Latinos, added Manancero, who came to the U.S. from Uruguay. “We do everything together. It’s not the individualistic way of doing things. That is counter-cultural here, but it is another gift that we bring.”

For many Latinos, their Catholic faith is part of their identity and therefore part of daily life, Manancero said.

Before children leave the house, they ask their parents to bless them. Families set up shrines in their homes. Entire families attend Mass together.

“I would describe their spirituality as being very personal, very intimate,” said Franciscan Father Eugene Michel, pastor of Sacred Heart in St. Paul, which has a large Latino membership. “To use a theological kind of word, it’s very incarnational. It’s the here and now. It’s not theoretical.”

But nothing embodies Latino spirituality better than the Virgin of Guadalupe.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Mexican peasant Juan Diego in 1531, leaving her image, with indigenous features, on his cloak. She is credited with converting countless Mexicans and other Latinos to Catholi­cism.

“The miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a living miracle because people are united around her,” said Prisciliano Maya, coordinator of faith formation at Sacred Heart. As he spoke, he pulled a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe from his wallet.

“A lot of people confuse the devotion that we have for the Virgin and they say that we worship her,” Maya, who is from Mexico, added in Spanish. “But the importance of Mary for us is that we’re very respectful and we don’t feel worthy of speaking directly to God. So we need Mary to have that communication. . . . She helps bring us to God.”

For Latino immigrants, the Spanish language is also important for communicating with God.

Silvana Palacios, an immigrant from Argentina who volunteers at St. John Neumann in Eagan, said she respects American culture and sees herself as part of mainstream society. “But my religion is something very personal,” she added.

Silvana and her husband, Carlos, said it’s important to keep their culture and their language intact. “For me, it’s not the same to pray in English as to pray in Spanish,” Silvana said.

Although their two young daughters speak fluent English, the couple bring them to Spanish Masses because they want to pass on their language and culture to their children. When they are older, they will decide for themselves whether to continue attending Spanish Masses, Carlos said.

Different, but not divided

Incarnation/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in Minneapolis is one of 23 churches in the archdiocese that offer weekend Masses in Spanish. Church leaders have been working to unite Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parishioners, but for now the parish retains separate names for its two communities.

“Sometimes the [Anglos] are at church for Mass, then they leave and the Latinos come. We’re like two groups,” said Sagrado Corazón parishioner Daniel Ramirez, who is from Mexico. He serves as a eucharistic minister and prayer group leader at the parish.

Although language can hinder communication efforts, Ramirez doesn’t see it as an insurmountable barrier to unity. He said he’d like for his church to hold more gatherings to bring the two communities together.

“I see Americans who have fear because they don’t know us,” Ramirez said. “Some­times when we don’t know each other, we think things that may not be true. For us Latinos, we need to get involved more in the American community, too, not just the Americans adjusting to us, but all of us adjusting to each other.

“We are the body of Christ, and we want to be one big family,” he added. “I wish the body of Christ would be Latino, American, Asian, everyone. . . . God speaks all languages.”

Ways to be welcoming

“In welcoming immigrants, we welcome Christ,” Father Virgil Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, said at a March 21 conference on immigration and the church at The Catholic University of America.

He offered some tips parishes can use to help immigrants feel at home.

» “The church needs to have symbols to make the people feel welcome,” Father Elizondo said. When people see a statue or image of Our Lady of Guadalupe inside a church, they know they are accepted there.

» Offer Masses in Spanish with familiar music.

» Cultivate a “spirituality of welcoming.” Rather than trying to make immigrants “become like us,” recognize that they have something to offer. “They bring a new dynamism, they bring a new profound faith,” Father Elizondo said.

» “Create a home away from home.” Many immigrants who come to this country leave family and friends behind, so churches should create opportunities for socializing.

» Offer practical help to immigrants adjusting to life in their new home.

— Julie Carroll


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