Hispanic Catholics: Does the church speak your language?

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In a 1993 interview, Father Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J. tells U.S. Catholic about the challenges the church faces when it comes to ministering to Hispanic Catholics.  

Father Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J. warns that the US. Catholic Church is facing a pivotal moment in its history: It can begin now to serve the diverse needs of Hispanic communities, or it can stand aside and watch even more Hispanic families find new spiritual homes in other churches.

Deck, president of the National Catholic Council of Hispanic Ministry, professor at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, and author of The Second Wave (Paulist Press, 1989), says that the key to the success of the evangelical church "has been their willingness to go where the people are found. If that means the barrio, that's where they go. They don't argue about whether they should speak Spanish or not, they just speak it because they know that's the language that will be effective."

How is the church responding to its Hispanic members?

The Catholic Church is going through a very profound transition in the United States. One of the most important aspects of that transition is the growth of the Hispanic communities and the way the church will relate to those communities. The most pressing challenge is the failure of the church leadership to thoroughly grasp the importance of the moment.

The church is losing a historic opportunity. When you travel throughout the country, it becomes very obvious that the mainline Catholic Church--the church that was built up by the sons and daughters or grandsons and daughters of Irish, German, Italian, and Slavic immigrant peoples--is getting old and shrinking. Either new blood will come in and give vitality to the church or the church will diminish. As a matter of fact, the church is already diminishing.

Why? Because of a reluctance to seek out new blood?

Yes. It's the syndrome of the established church. When you become established, you lose the fire in your belly. You lose the ability to take risks and reach out to newcomers. Unfortunately those newcomers are the people who would build tip and renew the church again in our country if they felt that the church were truly identified with them.

Now if you want to understand what it could be like if the church really took the Hispanic challenge as seriously as it should, take a look at the work of evangelical and pentecostal churches. The key to their success has been their willingness to go where the people are to be found. If that means the inner city, if that means the barrio, if that means rural communities, that's where they go.

It means identifying ministers that come from the people; it means speaking the people's language. They don't argue about whether they should speak Spanish or not, they just speak it because they know that's the language that will be effective.

Are Hispanic Catholics really newcomers--either to the church or to the United States?

Hispanics have been in what is now the United States since the 17th century. If you study the numbers, though, you'll find that at least a third of the 25 million Hispanics in this country are recently arrived immigrant peoples. But even with respect to those Hispanics who were born in this country, one can legitimately speak of them as being newcomers in this sense: They have historically not gotten a great deal of recognition and have not enjoyed a great deal of involvement in the church of this country.

How has the Hispanic experience in the church been different from that of the Irish or German Catholic immigrants?

Unlike those immigrant groups, Hispanics did not come with a large number of priests. The few priests they had at the beginning of the contact between the Hispanic church and the English-speaking church retreated to Mexico.

There has been a historic clash between the style and the spirit of the Spanish-speaking church and the style and spirit of the English-speaking church. The English-speaking church was very good with organizing at the parish level. The Hispanic church was a more expressive church.

When you look at the Catholic background of the Hispanics, you see how it's rooted in something profoundly different from American Catholicism, which is a product of the 19th-century, European-immigrant experience. Hispanic Catholicism is rooted in the medieval, baroque world of Spain, the pre-Colombian American world, and the African world.

To get at the heart of Hispanic Catholicism, one is well advised to look at popular Catholicism and not at the way that Hispanics affirm the standard teachings of the Catholic Church. By that I mean their sense of the role of the Virgin Mary, their orientation toward the suffering of Christ, and all of the kinds of devotions and practices that people have--how they celebrate Christmas, how they celebrate Holy Week--all of these things give a very different tone to Hispanic Catholicism.

It has been very hard for the leadership of the American Catholic Church to really respect and nurture that peculiar kind of Catholicism. After Vatican II, bishops, theologians, and seminary leaders got into the task of adapting the reforms of the council to the life of the church. But sometimes they went about doing that in a way that simply didn't respect the particular reality of Hispanics' devotional life.

Hispanics don't often complain because the Hispanic people, particularly the people from Latin America, have gotten used to the imposition of other people's norms. As a result, there's a certain distance that continues between the official church and the popular church.

Is this what is driving Hispanics elsewhere?

One of the reasons the Catholic Church is not attracting Hispanics as much as it could is that it doesn't perceive the challenge as one primarily directed at the young. Catholics have to address the needs of the young people better.

The Hispanic population is incredibly young--the average age of Hispanics is ten years younger than other Americans. To relate to a group that young, you need to keep up a certain spontaneity and an orientation toward community.

But the standard size of the American parish, at 2,300 people, is seven times that of the average Protestant congregation. It's hard to be spontaneous with a community that large--and that trend is going up, not down. What are Catholic dioceses doing instead of building smaller, more intimate communities? They're consolidating parishes.

This middle-class structured, organized, increasingly strategically planned church that we have may be functional now, but it won't be in the future. We've got to go back to the drawing board, or we're not going to keep those churches filled.

What are some of these old structures that need to be changed?

The people we rely on to do all the work, for one. Having priests and religious is important, but it's clear they are not enough. What we need are literally armies of lay ministers who are empowered and authorized to reach out to these people on behalf of the church in different forms of ministry.

Where they've been successful in stopping the tide of evangelicalism in Latin America is precisely in those places where they have strong basic communities and large numbers of lay ministers who do simple things, such as visit people in their homes and convene people in neighborhoods for prayer.

Part of what troubles the outreach to Hispanics is the assumption that the structures that we have are fundamentally adequate. The church's attitude tends to be that it has parishes that are strong, that work, and that more or less support themselves. All it has to do is drop a Hispanic, whether he or she is a newcomer or second or third generation, into the existing structure. But the church needs to be more creative than that. It needs to create a whole host of different structures that are adapted to the peculiarities of the groups it is serving.

You're calling for the use of a lot of imagination at a time when that seems to be lacking in the church.

There is a kind of vicious cycle going on here. Precisely at the time when we need to be more imaginative and take more risks and be more personally present is precisely when the American church's energy level is so low. The question is how can you cut through that and re-energize people with a vision of what we're about? And what we're about is more than maintaining the structures we have.

The number of Hispanics who identify themselves with the Catholic Church in the past 10 to 15 years has gone down. It's gone down by about 10 percent.

How serious a problem is that?

It's something to worry about definitely, but what you have to keep in mind is that the popular Catholicism among Hispanics is not clearly defined. It's a rather fluid reality. The Maryknoil priests have a very large parish in Guatemala City--50,000 to 60,000 people in the parish. Thousands of the parishioners had been going to evangelical churches. But when the parish organized a lay-ministry program, most of those people came back. A large percentage of them couldn't explain why they had left--in fact, they didn't really think they had left.

The people said, "Well, we went to those other churches because the people there were nice and because they invited us, and it would have been impolite to refuse. But we would still like to be Catholics."

Why would they still like to be Catholics? "Oh, because in the Catholic Church there are very nice people, too, and besides, those evangelicals really don't pay much attention to the Blessed Mother; they don't baptize babies; and when people are dying, we need the church to be there." Hispanic Catholics find the absence of those things very hard to understand about Protestant churches.

Hispanic people are tremendously loyal to the church, so I'm not predicting at any time soon they're going to abandon the church en masse. But there is a serious attrition going on here, and I'm concerned that the church right now, given its difficulties, doesn't have the energy it needs to face that.

How might the church start finding some of that needed energy?

The church is facing a number of different social and economic contexts, and it needs to have various approaches and structures. If we try to structure everything according to one mold or one pattern, which I'm afraid we've gotten into, we kill the spirit, and we kill the creativity.

In Mexico, there are many different types of catechesis for families and youth in apostolic movements and in parishes. Now that's the kind of approach that's necessary here in the U.S. if the church is really going to do its work in a world as pluralistic as ours.

There are many theologies that are acceptable in the church--many understandings of our faith. But instead of permitting people to take matters into their own hands and develop their own programs in those areas where our tradition allows it, the church tends to want to supervise in a way that imposes uniformity.

But isn't it through supervision that Catholics are able to maintain a common identity?

The strength to be found in Catholic tradition is in its incredible ability to adapt to cultures. That's why we're still here talking about it today. If the church hadn't adapted, it would have ceased to exist a long time ago. Christianity would have become a sect of Judaism if Paul hadn't pushed the point. That's what we need to keep doing.

The problem is when you allow people to do their own thing, other people get nervous. They say, "Oh, this works against the unity of the church." In my opinion, if we do it right, it will work for the unity of the church. Real unity is the product of people negotiating their participation in a community from a position of strength, not conforming to somebody else's abstract principles from a position of weakness.

That's why I have been somewhat critical of the multicultural-parish phenomenon. Multiculturalism is the "in" word these days, and I do believe we need to promote dialogue among all the cultures within the church. However, if by multiculturalism we mean creating some kind of a hybrid parish, I think that we are not on very solid ground. The norm that the church proposes to us is relating to each and every group in terms of its culture, not extracting a little something here and there from all these cultures to create a false unity.

What our cultural communities need is their own space, their own turf, their own context, their own ministers--to do their own thing. Unity will come in its own good time. Children are not going to be satisfied doing things in the style of the old country. They will come together with people from other cultures, but bringing cultures together is not going to happen in one or two generations. There's no substitute for reaching out to people in their own language and through their own customs.

Is language part of the reason Hispanics are leaving the church?

It's part of the reason, but a more fundamental problem is that we don't have enough pastors who identify with Hispanics, and, as a result, large numbers of Hispanic people are simply not being attended to. There are ways of working with Hispanics that can turn them off without priests or the parish personnel ever understanding the damage they're doing. Too many church people don't have the familiarity or the sympathy with the cultural approaches that work best with Hispanics.

A lot of misunderstandings occur in how the church delivers the sacraments to Hispanic people. In this country it has become very common to provide instructions to prepare people to receive the sacraments--to help the people understand what it is that is happening when they baptize their child or when they get married. But in the Hispanic world, the sacraments are defined not by people's individual or personal grasp of the meaning but by their involvement in a whole cultural pattern and system of life that reinforces the meaning of the sacrament.

The U.S. church tends to put all of its eggs in the basket of a cognitive understanding. The problem is that in the long term what people may need more are symbols and rituals that help them relate to the mystery of their faith-not just intellectual truths about them or an intellectual understanding of them. I'm not against the instructions, but we need to recognize the value of both approaches.

Are there other things the two cultures can learn from each other?

Hispanics can learn the need for organizing, and they can develop organizing skills. Democracy is one of the gifts that American culture offers Hispanics-that deeper sense of equality and the dignity of woman. These notions must be communicated to traditional cultures. On the other hand, Hispanic people can teach a sense of solidarity, a sense of family, and a sense of true sacrifice.

One has to have the ability to commit to something and then make the sacrifices that are necessary for living up to that commitment. Since the 16th century the word sacrifice has come to mean doing something difficult or giving something up so that one can improve myself. We make sacrifices in that sense. The idea is that if everybody gets educated and everybody develops themselves, everything will be fine. In other words, the good of the community is the result of everybody pursuing their individual good.

The more biblical and ancient understanding of sacrifice was giving something up, giving my life up, so that others might live. And Catholic social teaching says that the common good comes before all other goods. It's not just the sum of everybody's individual good. It's the idea that somehow family and society take a certain precedence over the individual.

The political and social virtues of the United States need to be influenced by what I would call the Catholic ethos. And there is a strong Catholic ethos at work in Latin cultures-a sense of collectivity and sense of solidarity. The pope is always talking about solidarity. That word is a very strange word in English. It's foreign to the civic and political experience in America-that's part of our difficulty. In the United States, we don't have the desire to belong to a community in the same way that Hispanic people do. In the future, we need to look at why that is if there's going to be more solidarity among people, more mutual help, and a better family life.

Why does the American church have so much difficulty in dealing with people of different cultures?

For people to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is both an embrace and a critique of culture, they need to be aware of their own culture. But Americans, in general, have tended to deny culture. New Americans are encouraged to "mainstream." As a result, religion in America tends to become the justification of our cultural ways instead of the critique of our cultural ways.

Jesus' use of the parable implied an intimate knowledge of his culture and the ability to critique it, to take the culture's metaphors and symbols and turn them around to get people to open up to God and to one another. Indeed, Jesus was hard to take by people of his own culture because he brought many of its values into question-and he still does.

Christianity is constantly pushing us. We don't like to be pushed beyond where we're comfortable. But we have to be willing to go beyond comfort if we are really going to look critically at ourselves-that's the task of being human and being spiritual.

This article appeared in the December 1993 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 58, No. 12, pages 27-30).