Young adults gather for the Hispanic charismatic Catholic conference in Chicago in 2009. CNS photo

With the continued growth of the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States, the Catholic Church is facing head on the challenge of not only welcoming them into American parishes, but fully integrating them in the life of the Church. 

Studies have shown that Hispanics now account for more than one-third of all American Catholics, and encompass more than 50 percent of Catholics under age 25. Those numbers have continued to rise, and in years to come it is projected that Hispanics will become a large majority of the Church in the United States. 

But at the same time, the number of Hispanics who identify themselves as Catholic is on the decline. A 2007 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that a growing number of Latinos were leaving the Church, with many gravitating toward Protestant — and particularly Evangelical — churches. Those conversions were being driven by a spiritual search and the desire for a more lively worship experience. 

The U.S. bishops have responded by placing a high priority on the Church’s efforts to effectively minister to the Hispanic population. Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs in the bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, told Our Sunday Visitor that there are currently 5,000 U.S. parishes offering some form of Hispanic ministry, with efforts under way to develop culturally relevant models for greater outreach efforts, particularly to youth and young adults. 

“The bishops continue to be concerned about welcoming and developing a sense of belonging among Hispanic Latinos,” Aguilera-Titus said. “We are very much of aware that even though millions are served [in parishes] across the country week after week, there are many others that we are still to reach. So it is a concern, and there is a growing response of reaching out and [making them] feel at home in the Catholic Church.” 

A place of welcome

Making Hispanics feel at home in a culturally diverse environment can, however, be a significant challenge for parishes. Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that Latino Catholics generally desire a community that is welcoming, vibrant and accepting of their traditions.  

“And when that is missing, I think people are hungry and they look elsewhere,” he said. 

The value in Latino cultures placed on family and relationships carries over into their faith lives, Father Groody said, and thus in many cases they seek a parish that is more than simply a place of worship. 

“They are looking for a place where they can connect with one another, and they are also looking for a place where they can bring their faith and put it into mission,” he said. “[The Church] is not just a place to fulfill an obligation, but it is a place where they participate in a celebration and find a way to interconnect.” 

Not ‘one size fits all’

Developing ministries to reach younger generations of Hispanics can be a more complex challenge. Key differences among Hispanic youth and young adults translate to a broad spectrum of needs that cannot be satisfied by a “one size fits all” approach. 

The California-based Instituto Fe y Vida (Institute for Faith and Life), which develops formation and evangelization materials aimed at Hispanic youth and young adults, has identified four distinct groups based on socioeconomic status, language preferences and family history. Carmen Maria Cervantes, executive director of Fe y Vida, said that understanding how these groups differ is crucial in meeting their needs.  

The most disenfranchised of these groups, she said, are known as “identity seekers” — mostly bilingual teenagers who have an interest in connecting with God and peers, yet they often have difficulty finding a place within the Church and thus may drift to other faiths or away from religion entirely. 

“This is a group that is abandoned,” said Cervantes. “They have a lot of desire to find God in their life, they pray on their own, but this is a group that goes less frequently to youth groups and to retreats. It is really sad, because they have been very misunderstood.” 

To meet the needs of these and other young Hispanics, Cervantes said parishes must develop various small communities. “Different small faith communities can center on how to teach the Gospel and how to teach them to really reflect on the work of God from their own lived reality,” she added.

Evangelization efforts

With the help of groups like Fe y Vida, Aguilera-Titus said that the Church is continually improving its ministry to Latinos. Lay apostolic movements within the Church, such as Cursillo and Charismatic Renewal, are helping to satisfy some of the needs that Hispanics may otherwise look to evangelical churches to fill, and training is being provided to help parish ministers take a more nuanced approach in reaching out to Hispanic populations. 

“We are framing this in the context how the new evangelization really invites us to be missionaries to these groups instead of just expecting them to show up and participate,” he said. 

Father Groody said the most successful approach is one that takes into account the full sacramental life of Hispanic Catholics. 

“Part of that task of evangelization involves the development of the whole person,” he said. “It is looking especially at Latinos where they are oppressed, where they are marginalized, where they are undocumented, and being responsive to the struggles, the sufferings, the pains, the anxieties, and really being with them and accompanying them.  

“I think that is a very important task of evangelization, and the Church is really doing that. … It should increasingly be part of the pastoral attention of every diocese to really do that kind of outreach.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.