Young Latino Catholic outreach
Milena Garzon, a Colombia native who now lives in Florida, and her baby, Faith. The Daughters of St. Paul have begun an outreach project to Latinos in South Florida. Photo by Tom Tracy

One of the peculiarities for Hispanic families still making the transition to life in the United States is when parents speak to their children in Spanish and the response comes back in English, causing un choque. Literally a “clash” or “crash,” a choque might well serve as a kind of metaphor for the passing on of Catholic faith and values among first- and second-generation Latinos around the United States. 

“They sometimes experience this choque within their families as a generational gap and lack of shared experiences between parents and teens,” said Elizabeth Sánchez, coordinator of Hispanic Youth Ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, Va., and a linguistics major who believes that the language and generational dynamics must be factored into any efforts addressing what has become the dominant Catholic ethnic minority in the United States. 

“Because the Catholic faith is attached to their culture, it is important to reach out to the youth if we want to keep them practicing the faith,” Sánchez said, adding that there are plenty of other Christian groups and sects inviting Hispanics to their faith communities. 

Recognizing gifts

To help make that contact with the many mostly Central and South American Hispanics living in the diocese, Sánchez and her team host an annual soccer tournament and family event each September that begins with Mass and ends with a meal. After that, parish youth directors can continue inviting the teens and families to come to church. Soccer becomes the bridge to the entire family. 

“The U.S. bishops have said the Hispanic Catholics are a gift to our culture and we want to help the second- and third-generation youth to recognize that their culture is a gift; to give them confidence in that,” Sánchez said. 

Typically, Hispanic families attend Spanish-language Masses, but the youths study and live their daily life in English. Faith traditions can literally get lost in translation as the younger kids lose their Spanish skills. Many cannot write or read adequately in Spanish. 

“There is a lot more that do not speak Spanish than you might think,” Sánchez said.

Bilingual evangelization

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 50.48 million Hispanics/Latinos, or 16.3 percent of the U.S. population. Within the Catholic Church, Latinos make up about 40 percent of the faithful. They are also the youngest group, with more than 56 percent of Catholics under 10 being Hispanic. While a majority of recent Latino immigrants (approximately 70 percent) consider themselves Catholic, pastoral leaders believe that percentage decreases about 10 percent for each generation. 

In both Miami and Boston, the Daughters of St. Paul, in concert with the U.S. bishops, recently launched a pilot program to bolster evangelization among Hispanics in both those urban centers and beyond. 

The initiative — Proyecto de Evangelización a Inmigrantes — is designed for both Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latinos. A total of six bilingual members of the Daughters of St. Paul are being mobilized to help fill in the gaps in terms of outreach to Latino immigrants at parishes or dioceses who would welcome the sisters to give a retreat or find ways to bolster evangelization at the local level. 

True to the model of St. Paul, the sisters plan to travel light and stay in whatever accommodations they are offered by their Church partners. The sisters said they also welcome any assistance area Catholics want to offer them as well as support through their lay collaborators (lay associate) program. 

“Our superior general is Brazilian and, she noted that the Latino Catholic populations here outnumber the Catholic population in some of those countries of origin,” said Sister Mary Emmanuel Alves, who will help spearhead the efforts in the Boston region with publication of bilingual materials and by simply being present at Latino festivals and expos. 

“The epicenter for Brazilian Catholics here is in the Boston archdiocese, and we are making an all-out effort to reach them. We have to work together to do everything we can to bring the gospel to these new people,” Sister Mary Emmanuel told OSV. 

One of the greatest melting pots of Latinos in the United States can be found in Miami. Sister Maria Elizabeth Borobia is organizing the Project outreach efforts there on behalf of the Daughters of St. Paul. 

In October the sisters met with Church leaders to learn about the needs of their parishes and how the sisters can assist them in evangelization partnerships. They also traveled to a regional meeting in St. Augustine concerning Hispanic ministry with representatives from 30 dioceses of the Southeast. 

Sharing beauty of Faith

One of the ongoing concerns is the flow of Hispanics away from Catholic identity toward evangelical Christian churches which offer friendship, a place to worship, leadership possibilities and a place to volunteer. 

“Sometimes we are hesitant to do that as a Church,” Sister Maria Elizabeth said. “We are a sleeping giant, and if we only realized the gift that we have in the Catholic Church we would be willing to share that. We can’t be afraid of sharing the beauty and faith that we received. Young people have gifts to offer; can they possibly imagine themselves as leaders within the Catholic Church?” 

The Scripture is every bit as much a part of the Catholic Church as other churches, Sister Maria Elizabeth said, adding that “Scripture study and prayer changes lives and can be a wonderful way for young people to discover their vocations in life.” But if that longing for spirituality isn’t being met within the Catholic Church they will go look elsewhere, she added. 

In South Florida for 50 years, the Daughters of St. Paul operate their Pauline Books & Media, a bilingual book center. They also host Paulinas Coffee House, Bible Alive, formation classes in Spanish and an adoration chapel. 

“They are trying to get established and going to church is not so easy, so how can the Church go out to them?” Sister Maria Elizabeth said of the Hispanic immigrants. “That is the question that we put forth ourselves.” 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.