Analysis: Is the U.S. church's Hispanic Catholic hope slipping away?

A file photo shows pilgrims making their way to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Millions of Mexicans made their way to the basilica to mark the Guadalupe feast day Dec. 12. The feast celebrates the appearance of Mary to the Indigenous Catholic St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531 near present-day Mexico City. (OSV News photo/Felipe Courzo, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- There is no doubt that the largest force transforming American Catholicism is the Hispanic presence. This has been the case for more than half a century. Hispanics account for nearly 71% of the growth of the Catholic population in the United States since 1960.

Of the 63.7 million Hispanics living in the U.S. in 2023, about 31 million self-identify as Roman Catholic. If Hispanic Catholics constituted a country, demographically we would be the eighth most populated country in the Americas, preceded only by the U.S. (334 million), Brazil (216.5 million), Mexico (128 million), Colombia (52 million), Argentina (46 million), Canada (39.8 million) and Peru (34.5 million).

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, CARA, estimated that in 2022 there were 73.5 million Catholics in the country. That places the 31 million Hispanics just mentioned at about 42% of the entire U.S. Catholic population. The more conservative estimate from the Official Catholic Directory suggests a U.S. Catholic population of 66.5 million for the same year, bringing Hispanics to about 47% of the total U.S. Catholic population.

More than two thirds of Hispanics are U.S. born (about 68%). However, when we look at the Hispanic Catholic population, it is almost equally divided as half immigrant and half U.S. born. The immigrant population tends to be older and most likely to be involved in the life of parishes and other faith-based communities.

Let these numbers be not a source of distraction. What's important to know is that nearly half of all U.S. Catholics self-identify as Hispanic. The majority of Catholics younger than 25 are Hispanic. The present and the foreseeable future of American Catholicism are intimately linked with the Hispanic experience.

The Hispanic presence has dramatically redefined U.S. Catholicism geographically. Since the foundation of the U.S., the majority of Catholics have lived in the Northeast and the Midwest. Because of the fast growth and strong presence of Hispanics, and the regions of the country where most live, that is no longer the case. The majority of U.S. Catholics today live in the South and the West.

This is not to say that the Hispanic presence is weak in the Northeast and the Midwest. On the contrary! It is quite strong and growing, particularly in large urban centers, such as New York, Chicago and Arlington, Virginia, among others, where the majority of Catholics self-identify as Hispanic.

Much of Catholic life in our country in the coming years will be significantly defined in the South and the West, and in the large urban centers where Hispanic Catholics are present in strong numbers.

Source of hope

References to Hispanic Catholics in our church are often impregnated with a profound sense of hope. There are many reasons for that to be the case. Allow me to highlight four.

One, Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the various cultural expressions and ways of life that identify millions of Hispanics in the U.S. This is the result of the centuries of the Catholic Church's strong influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, shaping nearly every realm of people's lives in these regions.

Even when many Hispanics are not actively involved in church life, as is the case for many other Catholics, they remain sustained by various forms of cultural Catholicism that permeate their values and commitments, making them receptive to further evangelization efforts.

Two, Hispanics are very young with a median age of 30.7 compared to a median age of 41.1 among the non-Hispanic population. About half of all Hispanics are younger than 30. Most Hispanics are living at a point in their lives when they are forming families and making career decisions, both crucial moments that demand close pastoral accompaniment.

If you want to get a sense of who the typical Hispanic Catholic is in the U.S., think of a 24-year old young person, a child of immigrants, born or raised in the U.S., looking for a better job, and perhaps deciding whether to get married or postpone this important decision to a later moment in life, although open to welcoming children.

The young Hispanic presence is clearly noticeable in our parish communities where families regularly worship with children. In most parishes with Hispanic ministry, the number of baptisms, first Communions and confirmations is significantly higher. Young Hispanic families and their children are a true renewing presence in thousands of parishes throughout the country.

Three, much of the revitalizing energy coming from the Hispanic Catholic community is rooted in a profound sense of the sacred, which Catholics have traditionally known as "sacramental imagination." Such a sense of the sacred for Hispanics comes to life not only in the celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, but also in various expressions of popular Catholicism that imbue nearly every aspect of everyday life.

The spiritual life of many Hispanic Catholics is regularly nurtured by our participation in apostolic movements such as Cursillo, Legion of Mary and the Neo-Catechumenal Way, among others. Nearly half of all parishes with Hispanic ministry have a Catholic Charismatic Renewal group.

This spiritual diversity, influenced by the cultural particularities that shape how Catholicism is lived throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and the various regions of the U.S., makes the Hispanic experience uniquely interesting and attractive.

Four, the experience of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. is constantly defined by factors that constantly determine our daily existence such as immigration dynamics, cultural identity negotiation, struggles for justice and respect, searching for spaces and resources to belong, full integration into a society that often sees us as foreigners, etc. Rather than mere obstacles to live and practice our faith, Hispanics often turn these factors into opportunities for reflection and pastoral creativity.

Many pastoral efforts in parishes, schools and organizations serving Hispanic Catholics exhibit a distinct level of dynamism as they seek to bring the best of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition to bear upon the challenges that this community faces. U.S. Hispanic Catholic theologians regularly reflect, write and teach in light of these experiences, injecting new life into the traditional questions that occupy the world of theological inquiry.

All in all, Hispanics are a source of hope for the church in the U.S. and for the larger U.S. society insofar as our presence is an invitation to renew the commitment to build communion among the all baptized, without exceptions, respond to the most urgent needs of God's people in the context of a culturally diverse church, and continue to witness Catholicism thrive in this land.

A fragile hope

Hope, however, is to be embraced and nurtured regularly. The gift of the Hispanic presence in the Catholic Church in the U.S. must not be taken for granted. This has been the clarion call of countless leaders, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, since the middle of the 20th century, when all indicators pointed to the process of hispanicization of Catholicism that we are witnessing today.

Pastoral leaders and theologians coming together for the national Encuentros of Hispanic/Latino ministry -- from the First Encuentro in 1972 until the Fifth Encuentro in 2018 -- have unanimously celebrated the presence and contributions of Hispanic Catholics. Many pastoral meetings in between the Encuentros have echoed the same sense of celebration.

The Catholic bishops of the U.S. as a body have also echoed their affirmation of that presence via statements and national initiatives. In 1995, the U.S. Catholic Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) published a statement titled "The Hispanic Presence in the New Evangelization in the United States." It is a very insightful document.

In the statement, the bishops say: "We affirm that the Hispanic presence in our church constitutes a providential gift from the Lord in our commitment to that New Evangelization to which we are called at this moment of history." I highlight this affirmation because it directly counters any pretension to see the Hispanic presence as accidental or temporary. Hispanics are part of God's salvation plan for the Catholic community in the U.S.

Recognizing the particular ways in which Hispanic cultures have integrated Catholic values after centuries of evangelization, as described above, the bishops further assert that they "recognize the Hispanic presence in our church as a blessing, a privileged opportunity to work for a culture that reflects the truth about the human person revealed in the truth about Jesus Christ." As such, the bishops acknowledge Hispanic Catholics as partners, true agents of evangelization, thus avoiding any idea of reducing Hispanics as mere recipients of pastoral activity.

Numbers and statistics are important, and they paint a clear picture of current changes and realities in the world of U.S. Catholicism. But more important still is the realization that Hispanic Catholics play a vital role in the process of building the church in the U.S. today. We do so as de facto members of the church because of our baptism and our faith in Jesus Christ. We do so as agents of evangelization, with the rest of the Catholic community.

Has the Hispanic presence and the conviction that Hispanic Catholics play a vital role in the process of building the church in the United States today been fully embraced? I would say that the record is mixed. There is no doubt that in many corners of our church the embrace has been evident with various levels of intentionality. In some parishes and dioceses there is no choice given their geographical location and the large numbers of Hispanics. However, there are far too many corners where such embrace has been rather lukewarm or poorly resourced or simply inadequate.

It is in these corners where the fragility of the hope described until now becomes more obvious, and the consequences can be of major detriment for the life of the church in the U.S. The Catholic bishops recognized this in their 1995 statement: "The Hispanic presence is also a prophetic warning to the church in the United States. For if Hispanic Catholics are not welcomed warmly and offered a home where they can experience our church as their church, the resulting loss of their Catholic identity will be a serious blow to the church in our country. We will have missed an opportunity to be truly Catholic."

I could not have said it better. Not embracing Hispanics and their potential loss of Catholic identity as those who disaffiliate walk away from church life and the practice of the faith constitute a real missed opportunity for the church in the U.S. to be truly Catholic.

A slipping hope?

Thirty-one million is a strong number and it represents much hope for the U.S. Catholic world. Parishes are full with Hispanic families and request sacraments. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics from Latin America migrate every year to the U.S., and many of them quickly search for a parish to build community and worship. Large numbers of Hispanic children are enrolled in religious education programs. A growing number of Hispanic young people enroll in Catholic educational institutions at all levels. All of these examples are much to be hopeful about. Anyone engaged in ministry could easily say, "Our hands are full."

Yet, the number could also be deceiving as it masks realities that should be of major concern to the same U.S. Catholic community.

An April 2003 Pew Research Center report estimated that about 43% of Hispanic adults in the U.S. self-identify as Catholic. In 2010 that estimate was 67%. This significant drop in terms of self-identification points to three concurrent dynamics.

One, the fast growth of the U.S.-born Hispanic population, children and grandchildren of immigrants, who are now reaching adulthood and are not making Catholicism part of their identity in the process, even if their parents and grandparents are Catholic and raised them in Catholic homes. Two, the steady process of Catholic disaffiliation among immigrant Hispanic adults. Three, the smaller number of immigrant Catholics from Latin America and the Caribbean as a result of stricter immigration policies. All this seems to indicate the intensity of these three factors will continue to exacerbate in the following years.

The coalescence of these factors is revealing that for many years the church in the U.S. has relied too confidently on a steady flow of Latin American Catholic and Spanish-speaking Caribbean immigrants into the country, and the assumption that they were prepared and have the resources to pass on the faith to their children in order to keep them engaged within the tradition.

It also reveals that our Catholic community has been rather slow, perhaps unwilling, to develop models of evangelization to evangelize and support the spiritual journey of U.S.-born and U.S.-raised Hispanic Catholics, and invest the necessary resources. We continue to invest significant resources to ministry in Spanish with largely immigrant communities in thousands of parishes throughout the country -- rightly so, and we should continue to do that -- but it is not clear how those same parishes should be developing ministries to accompany intergenerational and intercultural families, and Hispanic families that are fully integrated into the U.S. culture.

In the past, Catholic schools served as a way to help the new generations of young Catholics retain their religious identity and prepare for success in society. Only 3% of Hispanic Catholic children today attend these schools. Just a fraction of students in Catholic colleges and universities -- about 16% -- are Hispanic.

A good indicator to measure how integrated the Hispanic Catholic community is in the structures of the U.S. church is the nature of its leadership. Considering the fact that the majority of youth and young adult Catholics are U.S.-born or U.S.-raised, it would be fair to expect that the new generation of Catholic leaders for church and society are emerging from this particular group.

That is not the case yet. Nearly 85% of Hispanic priests, more than 90% of Hispanic vowed religious women and about 65% of Hispanic lay ecclesial ministers are immigrants. The percentage of Hispanic bishops, theologians, clergy, vowed religious, Catholic higher education leaders, Catholic school teachers and administrators, among other leadership groups, is very small -- in most cases in the single digits percentage-wise. We still have much progress to do.

Rekindling the hope

I share the above numbers and observations not as a way to complain or to focus only on the negative. I share them to encourage the entire Catholic community in the U.S. to be more conscious about the gift and opportunity we have received.

If we have any interest in the future of a strong Catholic presence in the U.S. society, building vibrant communities of faith, engaged in the public square as Catholics addressing the most urgent issues of the time, shaping the direction of this nation toward the common good, and accompanying Catholic families to raise their children as joyful disciples, then we cannot ignore what is happening with the nearly Hispanic half of the U.S. Catholic community. In other words, investing in the Hispanic present will yield a stronger future for U.S. Catholicism.

The responsibility of embracing the Hispanic presence and empowering the next generation of Catholics in the U.S. cannot be left only in the hands of Hispanic leaders or those who choose to accompany this community as part of their ministry. It is everyone's responsibility, just as we all have a shared responsibility for any other community within our church. Let us remember the concern of the U.S. Catholic bishops: The "loss of (Hispanics') Catholic identity will be a serious blow to the church in our country. We will have missed an opportunity to be truly Catholic."

There are many pastoral efforts throughout the country that seek to maintain alive and rekindle the hope that the Hispanic presence engenders. Among these efforts are the work of parishes, diocesan offices, Hispanic pastoral institutes, Catholic universities with programs of ministerial formation focused on Hispanic ministry, national organizations fostering exciting conversations, etc.

Boston College and the University of Notre Dame recently launched a five-year initiative called Haciendo Caminos, which seeks to cultivate the vocation to ministry among U.S.-born and U.S.-raised Hispanic Catholics. In partnership with 16 other universities, these young Hispanic Catholics engage in theological and ministerial formation while receiving support through academic and ministerial networks.

I recently concluded a major report as part of a national study of Catholic organizations serving Hispanic youth. The report, Ministry with Young Hispanic Catholics: Towards a Recipe for Growth and Success, highlights fascinating efforts focused on the pastoral accompaniment of Hispanic youth and young adults.

Organizations like Instituto Fe y Vida (Romeoville, Illinois), Iskali (Chicago), Centro San Juan Diego Arts, Cultural and Faith Formation (El Paso, Texas), Corazón Puro (New York), Fuerza Transformadora (Little Rock, Arkansas) and the Southeast Pastoral Institute (Miami), among others, are leading the way with innovative initiatives and a profound pastoral passion. At the helm of most of these organizations are Hispanic Catholics who are sharing their wisdom with other ministerial groups and leaders about how to best accompany Hispanic youth. Truly inspiring.

Rekindling the hope requires that we trust in the Holy Spirit. God will show us the way into being Catholic in an increasingly Hispanic church. But we must listen attentively, in a spirit of synodality and spiritual humility, ready to make an intentional decision to journey with our Hispanic sisters and brothers. That at least seems to be one of the invitations of the new National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry the U.S. Catholic bishops approved in 2023.

Every generation has the responsibility to be good stewards of the treasure it has received, cultivate it and pass it on to the next generation. The Hispanic Catholic presence is a most precious treasure God has placed in our ecclesial hands to build communion at this historical moment in the U.S. Let this treasure slip not through our ecclesial fingers.

Hosffman Ospino is a Catholic theologian teaching at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry.



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