Undeniable truths

Originally Appeared in : 9808-4/12/18

Leer en Espanol

As director of religious education at my parish I help prepare adults, youth, and children above the age of reason (seven and older) for the Sacraments of Initiation. At our recent Easter Vigil, 43 adults and children became fully initiated Catholics. Three, already baptized candidates, became Catholic through a Profession of Faith. The other 40 were unbaptized. Of these new Catholics, 40 were Hispanic. 


In our First Communion preparation, we expect about 120 children to receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time this May. Of those children and teens, about 100 are Hispanic. Our Confirmation preparation, a two-year process, includes approximately 160 youth; about 90 percent are Hispanic. 


Our parish offers four Masses on the weekend; two in English and two in Spanish. The Spanish Masses are packed. During the Saturday English Mass, the church is never full. The morning English Mass is a mix of cultures: Many Hispanic parishioners attend that Mass. However, I rarely see any primarily English speakers at our Spanish Masses. 


I’ve worked at this parish in central North Carolina for close to five years, and there’s been a steady increase in Hispanic parishioners. This increase is reflected in the numbers I report above. My parish also reflects a general trend in the Catholic Church in the United States. According to an article in Crux, “Growth of U.S. Hispanic Population a Blessing for Church Speaker Says” (Andrea Acosta, February. 5 2017) Boston College professor of theology and religious education Hosffman Ospino describes the Hispanic influx in the United States as a “tsunami.” 


The article confirms my parish’s experience, reporting that 71 percent of our country’s increase in Catholics is represented by Hispanic Catholics. In the United States, approximately 30.4 million self-identified as Hispanic or Latino people in the United States also identify as Catholic.


In the article Ospino cautions that “church leaders should pay attention to where Catholicism is growing.” He reports that “statistics show that more than most other groups in the church, Hispanics as a group baptize their children and see that their children receive First Communion, but at the same time church ministry shows resistance to that reality...”
Ospino says, “Dioceses, schools and parishes have been on ‘cruise control’ for more than 70 years and a renewal, a new dynamic, is needed. We have to read the signs of the times in light of our faith.”


One hopeful, responsive development is the Fifth National Encuentro on Hispanic/Latino Ministry in Fort Worth, Texas, to be held this September. The culmination of parish, diocesan and regional encuentros, the American Bishops expect more than 1 million Catholics to participate over the next two years.


My parish has been participating in this encuentro, and a colleague of mine attended the regional encuentro in Florida earlier this year. The encuentro is designed to provide opportunities for those active in Hispanic/Latino ministry to make their voices heard about their needs and hopes for the direction of the Church. 


Change and increasing diversity can be seen as challenges or problems, or they can be seen as opportunities and solutions. 


During the Easter season, we read from Acts and learn about the growth of the earliest Christian communities. That growth did not occur seamlessly. 


An article in Church Life Journal, “That All May Be One”: Cultural Unity in Shared Parishes” by Ryan Pietrocarlo, C.S.C., describes the challenges facing the early Church. 


He writes: “The more Gentiles were being baptized, the more the community of Christians with these various needs grew as well. Certainly, the Apostles, being of Jewish origin, were not familiar with the lifestyle and needs of the Gentile people and thus they did not know how to best meet these needs.


We see this come to the fore in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The Hellenist (Greek) converts were increasing in number and their needs were not being met. So they approached the disciples and let them know what they were lacking. Acts records that the Greeks said that ‘their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food’ (6:1), certainly an important need for that community. The needs of the Greeks being new to the disciples, they had to come together to discuss the matter. After their deliberations, they decided on an ingenious idea. They exhorted the Greeks, ‘select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task’ (Acts 6:3). The disciples knew that they lacked the expertise of being able to meet the needs of the Greeks since they were not Greeks themselves. So they decided to allow the Greeks to choose people from their own ranks to meet their needs. They would know how to do it most effectively since they are most familiar with those needs.”


Father Pietrocarlo uses this example, asking a group to select its own leaders to express their needs, as one the Church must follow. His article focuses on ways that “shared parishes” (parishes that are made up of Anglo and Hispanic/Latino groups, like my own parish) may find unity amid their diversity. 


From my experience in a shared parish, much work toward unity still must be done. Most important, from my view, is a greater understanding among Anglos of the experiences and culture of our Hispanic brothers and sisters. 


I’ve heard it said “they should learn English” in response to Masses being offered in Spanish, yet those who make that claim overlook the fact that people are most comfortable praying in their native language. 


Father Pietrocarlo describes “national parishes” as part of the fabric of the early Catholic Church in America. These parishes consisted of “‘members of one ethnic group with the purpose of worshipping and sharing parish life in their native language and culture.’ The first national parish was established by German Catholics in Philadelphia in 1787 and they spread dramatically in major U.S. cities throughout the nineteenth century. Each ethnic group created national parishes, attended only by people from that ethnic group. Within one city it was possible to find German, Polish, Irish, and French national parishes.”


These parishes were a direct outcome of the need for immigrants to find a way to express their faith in culturally appropriate ways. In light of our history, offering Mass in Spanish and providing Hispanic ministry seems the very least we can do. 


It’s incumbent on all of us, especially those of us in places where the Hispanic population is booming (the South and the West ) to become more actively committed to inclusivity and cultural awareness. 


We can begin by acknowledging two undeniable truths: Our Church has been inclusive since its earliest origins (clearly described in the Acts of the Apostles) and the Church in the United States has deep immigrant roots. We must never allow the anti-immigrant sentiment, too often vocalized of late, cause us to forget who we are.


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at 

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