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Hispanics Are Changing The Face Of U.S. Catholicism

January 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Pope John Paul II’s recent appointment of Msgr. Kevin J. Farrell and Father Francisco Gonzalez Veler, both fluent in Spanish, as new auxiliary bishops for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington merited national attention in that the announcement dramatically signaled the Church’s growing awareness of the increasing presence of Hispanics within the US Roman Catholic population. At a press conference introducing the two, Washington’s Archbishop, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, noted that, "the promotion of two bishops who speak Spanish and have worked in the service of the Hispanic Catholic community gives us a witness to the universality of the Church in the nation’s capital." The Cardinal himself is conversant in Spanish. Msgr. Farrell worked for many years in Mexico and Fr. Gonzalez, a Spaniard, has a varied background of ministry among US Hispanic Catholics.

One of the vacancies filled by the new appointments was the one left by Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, S.J., who left his Washington post in 1997 to take over the Diocese of Caguas in his native Puerto Rico. He is now Bishop of Tyler, Texas, where one of his objectives is to energize the Hispanic outreach programs of the diocese. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (, there are currently twenty-five Hispanic Bishops in the Continental United States, including Fr. Gonzalez, one of the new Washington nominees who will be installed on February 11, 2002. Of this number, eleven head up a diocese, four are retired and the rest are Auxiliary Bishops assigned to dioceses with large Catholic populations. Bishop Corrada is the sole Puerto Rican.

According to the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Hispanic growth in the church is changing the face of U.S. Catholicism. In its latest study of the question, it found that Hispanics currently comprise between 30 and 38% of U.S. Catholics, making it the largest ethnic group in the U.S. Church. Since 1960, Hispanics account for 71% of the Catholic growth in the United States and, using Y-2000 U.S. Census projections, by the mid-point of this century, eight of every ten American Catholics will be Hispanic.

A strong Latino presence in certain regions of the United States is not a new phenomenon. Areas of early Spanish colonization, such as in California, the U.S. Southwest and Florida, have left their mark on the cultural character of the Catholic Church in those places for centuries. What is new is the Twentieth Century influx of immigrants from Hispanic America into states and cities where the church was earlier stamped by the use of English and ethnic influences fostered by the immigration of the Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans. The massive number of Hispanic immigrants settling into these locations, principally in the East, Northeast and Midwest, has produced a crisis for Catholic dioceses unprepared for the special needs of their new Spanish-speaking parishioners.

To meet this need, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has accelerated its efforts to integrate these new Catholics into the life of the Church but the problems are staggering. For instance, there is but one Hispanic priest for each 10,000 Latino Catholics, compared to one English-speaking priest for each 1200 Anglos. Until Hispanic candidates begin moving through the seminaries in larger numbers, the learning of Spanish is being encouraged in all North American seminaries. Father Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., Executive Director of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, California, told the Catholic News Service (CNS) that in that state’s Catholic seminaries, Spanish is the second language. "You can’t get out without being able to say Mass in Spanish, hear confessions and give a simple sermon," he said.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, where the newly appointed prelates will serve, there are an estimated 200,000 Latino parishioners among the roughly 550,000 registered Catholics. Today, Mass is offered in Spanish in 27 of its 140 parishes and a growing number of its priests are learning to speak Spanish. Hispanic pastors head three of the parishes. Before 1970, the Archdiocese, which encompasses the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties, had statistically insignificant numbers of Latino Catholics. The influx of Hispanics to the Washington area during the 1970s and 80s, caused by political violence in Central America and the subsequent arrival of immigrants from Latin American countries seeking economic betterment have swelled the numbers. The same pattern can be seen in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, where the Catholic Hispanic population is even larger than that of the Washington Archdiocese. According to USCCB projections, it is the seventh ranking American diocese in the rate of growth of Hispanic Catholics, now numbered at 300,000, with a 25% increase every four years. There are now 28 Spanish Masses offered weekly throughout the five counties of the Arlington Diocese.

Currently, dioceses with growing Hispanic populations are attempting to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking immigrants by establishing diocesan counsels to attend to the social and spiritual needs of this population and by offering Sunday Masses in Spanish in selected parishes. Many engaged in Hispanic ministry note that the response needs to go beyond Masses in Spanish, since Hispanics bring a unique brand of Catholicism to U.S. shores. It is a Catholicism rooted in the culture of its people, where religion and daily life are intertwined and where popular devotions are an integral part of a living faith. For example, the December 12th feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a colorful celebration in many dioceses, with Masses accompanied by Mariachi music, children attired in the native dress of their countries of origin and processions winding into the streets adjacent to the church.

In spite of the new outreach to Hispanic Catholics, church leaders acknowledge that it remains a "parallel ministry," meaning that in a given parish, the existence of Spanish Masses and other devotions for Latinos is far from integrated into the broad spiritual experience of that church. The U.S. Catholic Church has been moving in multiple and, so far, non-converging paths in its outreach to minorities, a trend that leaders say they hope to see changing, as the clergy and laity become more comfortable with the reality of a multicultural church.

In an interview for this article, Rev. Ovidio Pecharroman, Director of Spanish Ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, told The Herald that his office has drawn up a five-year plan to help the diocese better serve its Hispanic Catholics. The plan includes the establishment of a Training Institute (Instituto de Formacion) to orient all laypersons involved in parish ministries to the new demands of a Catholic Church that is changing from a predominately Anglo to a multicultural one. By 2010, Anglo Catholics will no longer be in the majority in the United States Catholic Church. Nationally, Asians, African-Americans and Native Americans add to the ethnic mix of the Church. Fr. Pecharroman puts his hope for a more cohesive U.S. Catholic church in the education of its laity. "The Catholic layperson," he says," appreciative of the Spanish language and culture, working in cooperation with the pastor and under the direction of the Bishop, will move us in the direction of an integrated Catholic Church, respecting all cultures and expressions of the same Catholic faith."

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