According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Latino Catholics are present in virtually every diocese in the country. They comprise 34 percent of all Catholics in the United States. Yet, very few young Latino men choose to enter the seminary. In 2011, 15 percent of ordinands were Latino, many born outside the United States. Sixty-nine percent of ordinands were of Caucasian or European descent, and 10 percent were of Asian descent. The end result is that many predominantly Latino congregations in the country are served by non-Latino members of the clergy.
Latinos are also underrepresented among U.S. bishops. Forty Latino men have been ordained, and 26 are still active; they make up less than 10 percent of all U.S. bishops.
Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, USCCB’s executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church in Washington, D.C., told Our Sunday Visitor, “Studies have shown that second-generation Catholics move away from the Church. It’s a matter of considerable concern for us.”
Father Deck believes “immigrant-bashing” is a leading factor alienating Catholics from the Church.
“There’s always been an anti-Hispanic prejudice in the United States, and in the last five years, it has been more strident than ever,” he said.
Father Deck himself is a first-generation Mexican-American born in Los Angeles. He was ordained a priest in 1976.
He also lamented that only 3 percent of U.S. Latino children attend Catholic schools.
He believes a solution to the dearth of vocations among Latinos lies in improved “inter-cultural competence” among Church leaders and a greater focus on youth and young adult ministry to Latinos.
One of his favorite programs is the Instituto Fe y Vida. Based in Stockton, Calif., and staffed by laypeople, Instituto trains young Latinos for peer-to-peer ministry and offers workshops for Church leaders.
Ken Johnson-Mondragón, Instituto’s director of research and publications, agrees that many Latinos in the United States are choosing not to practice the faith of their parents or grandparents, and, therefore, are not going to seminary. He believes language is a significant factor. “In many cases, Hispanic elders simply do not have the vocabulary in their children[’s] or grandchildren’s primary language to express and explain what they believe,” he said.
Lay Catholic evangelist Jesse Romero (www.jesseromero.com) believes that second- and third-generation Latinos are becoming secularized. Romero, a retired sheriff’s deputy who began evangelizing as a second career, is, like Father Deck, a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in the Los Angeles area.
The problem is not anti-Latino prejudice, he said, as that would have a galvanizing effect, unifying the Latino community and leading its members back to their Catholic roots. Instead, he said, “Pope John Paul II spoke of ‘baptized nonbelievers.’ Many Hispanics in the United States cannot resist the incredible allurement of secular culture; what we might refer to as wine, women and song.”
Romero said such Latinos believe Catholicism is for “those uneducated peasants from south of the border,” and the way to gain respect in the United States and move up the social ladder is by embracing “the secular humanism offered at many universities.” Other Latinos are enticed by the seemingly more polished message offered by evangelical Protestant ministers.
Additionally, second- and third-generation Latino Catholics often don’t speak Spanish and don’t identify with U.S. priests from Mexico and Central America who may speak limited English. Caucasian priests serving predominantly Latino parishes often have trouble connecting to young Latinos, Romero said.
Romero said the solution lies in better catechesis, as many Latinos do not know their faith, and more passionate presentations by those who embrace it.
He said that although Anglo Catholics are often more “cerebral” in the practice of their faith, practicing Catholic Latinos are often drawn to charismatic renewal. “It’s huge,” he said. “When you meet active Latino Catholics, they often ask ‘are you renewed?’”
Romero has made a career of evangelizing Latino and non-Latino groups, in either Spanish or English, and has seen many adopt or return to the faith that they never really knew.
Father James Forsen is director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the U.S. region with the largest concentration of Latino Catholics. He agrees that secularism is a problem. Second- and third-generation Latino Catholics, he said, “are becoming Americanized. They’re told ‘the world is yours.’ Sacrificing all to follow Christ becomes especially challenging.”
The archdiocese has been experiencing some “lean years” for new priests, he said, and will for years to come. Six are scheduled to be ordained priests this year; in 2010, there were three. The archdiocese is the biggest in the country, so the scarcity is major cause for concern.
Father Forsen believes a partial solution lies in encouraging young men, whether Latino or not, to pursue the priesthood by presenting it as an attractive way of life for those who are called and offering positive images of priests.
Strong sense of family
Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares of Phoenix believes that because Latinos have such a strong sense of family, they don’t want to leave to attend seminary. Additionally, young Latino men have a sense of obligation to help support the family financially, which they cannot do in the seminary.
Bishop Nevares grew up in Houston, Texas. He is a first-generation American of Latino descent; his parents are immigrants from Monterrey, Mexico. He was the youngest of five children. At age 14, he left home to attend the high school seminary. Later, he thought about returning home and going to work, but an older brother encouraged him to continue in the seminary. “My brother said, ‘We can support the family financially, you go back to seminary and support us spiritually,’” Bishop Nevares said.
He did and was ordained a priest in 1981. He became Phoenix’s first auxiliary bishop in 2010.
Bishop Nevares also believes many Latino parents discourage their sons from pursuing religious vocations, because they believe a “real man” gets married and has children.
As in Los Angeles, Phoenix has struggled with vocations to the priesthood. In 2010, three were ordained priests; this year, there will be none. About 40 percent of Phoenix’s estimated 1 million Catholics are Latino.
“We need to persuade young married people that having a son that is a priest is honorable and will bring many blessings to a family,” Bishop Nevares told OSV. “It is a wonderful gift to have a child that is a priest.”
Jim Graves writes from California.