US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Hispanic Catholics deserve more from their church

By Father Kenneth G. Davis, O.F.M. Conv. | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Hispanic Catholics will soon be the majority in the U.S. church but they are still often relegated to the basement. It’s time to bring Hispanic ministry upstairs, one priest argues. 

What would happen in Boston or Chicago if the papal nuncio forbade corned beef on St. Patrick's Day because it falls on a Friday during Lent? Or laughed at Our Lady of Czestochowa because no one could prove that St. Luke painted her? He'd probably be run out on a rail by Irish and Polish Catholics!

Yet the same people who wink at St. Patrick during Lent wince at Our Lady of Guadalupe during Advent. Our Lady of Czestochowa causes no scholarly stir, but Juan Diego is pursued for being "undocumented" not by immigration authorities but academic ones. Such culturally prejudiced behavior frequently occurs in the U.S. Catholic Church when assumptions remain unexamined. How often have we heard people say that English is the only official language of this country and therefore of our church, or that attention to culture divides rather than unites Catholics?

In November 2007 the U.S. bishops collapsed the national Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs into a new office charged with "cultural diversity," the culmination of a process that has been creeping across the country. As Hispanic numbers have increased, Hispanic Catholic ministry on regional and diocesan levels has actually decreased.

Think of a typical chancery. It boasts offices for worship, youth, family, and so on. Each has a mission statement claiming to serve the diocese in those ministries. In effect, however, they serve only white English speakers. Hence, while dozens of employees serve white non-Hispanics through many offices, a single office of "cultural diversity" with one or two employees must serve the entire other 40 to 50 percent of the diocese across all those ministries. Thus Hispanic parishes, which are usually poorer and most in need of diocesan resources, are virtually abandoned by their chancery.

These continuing church trends imply that there are "normal" Catholics and then there are others. As a Puerto Rican friend recently responded to the phrase "people of color": "When did white stop being a color?"

This kind of imposition of ministry adequate to one group upon other groups is a form of ecclesial conquest. It occurs whenever a group acts as if its particular language and culture is or should be universal and normative for everyone. This uncritical approach is reinforced by the resulting disproportionate use of resources.

We grasp intuitively that ministry cannot be generic or universal, which is why we have separate chaplaincies for hospitals, prisons, and the military. Yet since the demise of national parishes, we seem stymied in applying this same intuition that ministry must be particular to the increasingly culturally distinct environment of our church.

A recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center captures the presence of a significant and, to some, surprising "indigenous success" in Hispanic ministry: More than half of Hispanic Catholics are charismatic. They are committed to the church and its traditional teachings but also emphasize a personal relationship with God and embrace ethnic-oriented worship. Hispanics are not passive recipients of charismatic Catholicism; rather, they have profitably made it their own. For instance, Hispanic family and community cultural values balance some charismatics' tendencies toward sectarianism.

Hispanic charismatics have been successful because they apply proven strategies native to their culture to ministry. Success generates new resources from within the culture as well. I see eight tactics common to both Hispanic charismatic and popular Catholicism that are successful precisely because they are rooted in Hispanic culture. They provide ideas that could and should be systematically applied throughout dioceses. These are:

  • Promote lay leadership: Hispanic Catholics have never had sufficient clergy, and educational as well as financial obstacles still inhibit those vocations. Yet Hispanics have always had religious leaders, particularly women. Dioceses need to identify, recruit, coordinate, support, and form lay leaders, especially in scripture.
  • Evoke emotion: To evoke is not to manipulate. Charismatics embrace a faith that is holistic rather than exclusively rational. Hispanic worship is more than just Spanish; it is an idiom that appeals to the heart as well as the head.
  • Accept the practical: People petition God for what they need and ask others to intercede. Whether through the charismatic laying on of hands or traditional novenas, people believe God cares about them personally. Worship accepts this, and so, too, does a holistic ministry that addresses social justice issues such as education, immigration, employment, and health care.
  • Evangelize through testimony: Hispanics leave notes and photographs to saints. They follow the same formula when they testify to their life before Christ and compare it to their new life with him. Love must express itself; it compels missionaries. The church should channel this natural desire beyond prayer groups to evangelize neighborhoods, workplaces, the Internet, and elsewhere.
  • Build small Christian communities: Whether through confraternities, prayer groups, 12-step groups, or storefront churches, people seek mutual aid, support, and mentoring in an increasingly anonymous and individualistic society. Hispanics respond enthusiastically to small Christian communities, which are integral to any pastoral strategy. Many dioceses react to priest shortages only with ever-larger assemblies, but it takes a personal experience of the Body of Christ to fully enter into the Eucharist.
  • Mentor family-friendly men: Male spirituality based on responsibility, fidelity, bravery, work, and family must be mentored through example and fraternity. Men express their particular and complementary role in family, society, and church through groups such as adoración nocturna (adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through the night) and now must be supported in similar efforts as true servants.
  • Include youth and young adults: Young people should be included in Hispanic ministry, reflecting their overwhelming presence. The church needs to encourage their education and celebrate their achievements. Invite them to use technology, drama, art, and music in ministry. With proper supervision, even children can greet and hand out hymnals at Mass. There are always ways to include youth in ministry, and they will always provide creative suggestions of how to do so. Listen!
  • Nurture stewardship: Most Catholic schools and universities do not invest sufficient resources in Hispanics. Too often Hispanics feel like renters, not co-owners of these groups, and renters do not invest in institutions owned by others. Charismatics and Hispanic apostolic movements and religious rituals never lack resources because Hispanics feel ownership. They may not invest individually or through envelopes; they may contribute more through group activities such as fiestas. But Hispanics support religious institutions that support them.

I do not suggest these eight tactics because they have empirical support or even because my experience proves their helpfulness (although both are true). Rather I believe they are helpful because they are indigenous.

White, non-Hispanic Catholics such as I must recall that we did not bring the faith to our country; Spanish speakers did. Soon we will no longer be the majority in the church. Both history and demography indicate that we are just one group among others and therefore must not uncritically promote our own cultural ministry to Hispanics. Rather we need to encourage an indigenous ministry from within Hispanic cultures themselves. Those efforts will require a redistribution of resources commensurate with the various members of the many-cultured U.S. church.

Hispanic charismatics are one example of a successful, native adaptation of Hispanic Catholics' own popular or indigenous Catholicism. Applying these eight tactics, shared by Hispanic charismatic and popular Catholicism, would be a much better alternative to the unconscious ecclesial conquest that to this day is still too often (albeit at times unintentionally) imposed. 

This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 2., pages 24-26).