Latinos are not a challenge or a problem for the U.S. Catholic Church.
They are the church.
That’s the message from some Hispanic leaders as the fastest-growing segment of American Catholicism rapidly becomes the majority.
“There are too many things that have gone wrong for the church to risk alienating its majority,” said Carmen Nanko-Fernández, professor of Hispanic theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “Latinos are saying, ‘We’re almost the majority, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.’”
With the church hierarchy embroiled in scandal over clergy sexual misconduct and abuse of minors, Nanko-Fernández said, “There’s less tolerance for mismanagement in the church than ever before. There’s less tolerance for not being heard than ever before.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described a four-day bilingual meeting last weekend (Sept. 20-23) as a “crucial turning point for the Catholic Church in America,” designed to discern ways in which the church can better respond to its growing Latino population.
In 1972, the bishops’ conference organized the first National Hispanic Encuentro — a Spanish word for meeting — to discuss greater participation for Latinos in church leadership and decision-making roles.
Nearly a half-century later, the fifth such national gathering — called “V Encuentro” — brought together more than 3,000 delegates and 127 bishops for what Pope Francis characterized as “a historic moment for the church in the United States.”
Said Nanko-Fernández, “I hope they listen this time.”
The conversation is a difficult one, given the diversity within that budding majority, generationally, culturally and even linguistically: for many younger Hispanic Catholics, English, not Spanish, is their primary language.
The Pew Research Center estimates there are roughly 51 million adult Catholics in the U.S., accounting for one-fifth of the total adult population. The share of Americans who are Catholic is falling, but the rapid growth of the overall Hispanic population means Latinos still make up a larger share of the total Catholic population.
And Latinos are already the majority among younger Catholics. According to numbers gathered ahead of the fifth Encuentro, 40 percent of all Catholics in the U.S. today are Hispanic; 50 percent of Catholics ages 14 to 29 are Hispanic; and 55 percent of Catholics younger than 14 are Hispanic.
“This is the moment to speak up,” said Belen Morales, 24, a delegate from the Archdiocese of Chicago. “Right now, we are having this time to talk about our needs, our realities, and we’re telling this to the church. And the church is listening to us.”
Morales immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador at age 13. “At least where I live in Chicago, there’s support for the youth, but it’s more for the teenagers,” she said. “As for us, the young adults, we’re a little bit forgotten.”
In a six-minute video message to the thousands who assembled at a convention center in this suburb near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, said in his native Spanish, “I see that the fifth Encuentro is a concrete way for the church in the United States to respond to the challenge of going beyond what is comfortable, business as usual, to become a leaven of communion for all those who seek a future of hope, especially young people and families that live at the peripheries of society.”
Amid the changing demographics, the geographic center of the U.S. Catholic Church is also shifting gradually away from its traditional redoubts in the Northeast and the Midwest to the South and the West, said Elizabeth Podrebarac Sciupac at Pew.
Since the original meeting in 1972, Encuentro events have been convened in 1977, 1985 and 2000. In preparation for the 1985 gathering, the U.S. bishops published a pastoral letter titled “The Hispanic Presence: Challenge and Commitment.”
“While it was a well-intentioned and timely document, the title suggests some things that it’s unintended to suggest,” Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson told Religion News Service. “Challenge is sort of a nice word for problem.”
No longer is the idea that the church will try to understand how to minister to a minority population, said Olson, whose diocese of 900,000 parishioners — more than half with Latino surnames — hosted V Encuentro.
“I think there is a coming of age,” the Texas bishop added. “It’s really a moment of grace and an opportunity for us to grow and mature as the whole church. This is not a convention to deal with a minority problem, but rather it is a coming together of the entire church for our own renewal as a church.”
Roberto Villatoro, a deacon at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Upland, Calif., said, “The main thing for us is to see how we can help the Hispanic culture to be recognized. … We need to see what we can do with the youth because the youth are very important, and they are being ignored.”
Ariadna Nuñez, 20, a fellow delegate from Chicago, agreed.
“I know there have been a lot of problems in the church,” said Nuñez, who was born in Mexico. “But we are here to make a change and show we are together.”
While the pope did not mention the sex abuse scandal, bishops and others who addressed the Encuentro delegates made repeated references to it.
“You are right to be brokenhearted by the faults of your shepherds, priests and bishops,” said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, a Mexican-born prelate. “Let us pray to God for the victims of the crimes that led to this crisis. Do everything you can for the healing of all the victims of these abuses, and pray also for the perpetrators and for us, your shepherds.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the “ongoing revelations of misconduct make us feel ashamed and sad.”
“We bishops have fallen short,” DiNardo told the delegates. “Amidst this darkness, the Encuentro is a light that shines and illuminates the way forward. The enthusiasm, the passion, the love and the joy of the Encuentro process is a means of grace, a gift to us as we rebuild the church.”
Despite her displeasure with the clergy sex abuse scandal, Erika Diaz, 35, a delegate from the Diocese of Pueblo, Colo., said she doesn’t fear those misdeeds will cause an exodus from the pews.
“One of the biggest things is that we know that we’re not perfect, and we know the clergy is not perfect,” said Diaz, a mother of four girls, ranging in age from 5 to 14. “We all fail. But the one that we follow, he is perfect.”
On the other hand, the Mexican-born immigrant does worry about leisure pursuits and sporting activities distracting young Latinos from spiritual matters.
“Now,” she said, “they’re having practices for sports and other activities at the same time as Mass.”