Wednesday, May 7, 2014

National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry

Recently, Boston College (in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) has published a significant study on Hispanic Ministry in American Catholic parishes. One can read the summary report of its findings at It is well worth reading in full!

Of course, any study of parishes with Hispanic Ministry is ultimately a look at the present and future of the Church in the U.S. As the report itself acknowledges right away: "What we learn about parishes with Hispanic ministry today gives us a sense of what Catholic life in the United States already is in many places where Catholicism is growing vibrantly - of course, not without challenges. Considering current demographic trends and the steady growth and influence of Hispanic Catholicism, these communities also provide us with a glimpse of what U.S. Catholicism will be like in vast regions of the country - at least during the first half of the twenty-first century."

Indeed, I think one of the most amazing things about post-conciliar Catholicism in the U.S.  has been the inability or unwillingness in some quarters  to recognize the full implications of this simple, yet so significant demographic fact!

The second thing that is noteworthy, of course, about the study is that it is about parishes. As the documents itself declares: "Parishes matter. Parishes continue to be privileged places where most active Catholics learn, live, and celebrate their faith."  That too should be obvious! For the most part, that has been the story of the Catholic Church in the U.S. for most of its history. It remains the case now and likely will be for the foreseeable future. There ought to be no more important project for those concerned with the evangelization of American society than the strengthening and supporting of American Catholic parish life.

Where this basic parochial reality and the current Hispanic American reality intersect so significantly is in the widespread experience that, for the most part at least, the greatest vitality in American Catholic life is to be found in parishes with Hispanic ministry.

Thus, for example, the study notes that weekend Mass attendance in parishes with Hispanic ministry "is about 22 percent higher than the average for all parishes nationally," with a median weekend Mass attendance in such parishes of 1110  compared to 750 for attendance in parishes overall.

In my experience, of particular importance in contributing to the vitality of Catholic life in such parishes is the presence and role of apostolic movements and of Hispanic permanent deacons, both of which receive appropriate attention in this report.

The study also notes that almost 40% of adult American Catholics self-identify as Hispanic, and that 93% of under-18 Hispanics are American born. Hence the consequential conclusion: "Much of the Catholic experience in the country during the next few decades will be significantly shaped by how the Church reaches out to this last group and whether young Hispanic in this age bracket, at least those growing up in Catholic households, decide to self-identify as Catholic."  In my limited experience, it sees to me that much pastoral effort has gone into meeting the many immediate needs of immigrant populations and that the Church has responded creditably, even if not quite sufficiently, to the task of serving many of the Spanish-speaking adults in our midst. My guess is that there is much more to be done, however, to meet the distinctive pastoral needs of younger, American-born, English-speaking Hispanic populations, who experience some of the same challenges to faith that their non-Hispanic peers are also experiencing.

Given the youthfulness of the Hispanic Catholic community in the United States, the study highlights "a disquieting gap between parishes with large Hispanic populations and Catholic schools." Catholic schools may not provide all the answers to the Church's many and varied challenges, but it is hard to imagine a seriously successful transmission of an informed, active, and committed Catholic faith to the next generation without a strong network of Catholic schools. Nor, I think, should we ever underestimate the energy a vibrant parish school brings to the ongoing daily life of a parish.

In conclusion, the study identifies 12 areas requiring immediate attention. Two which I have already highlighted are a need for pastoral outreach to American-born Hispanic youth and the widening distance between Hispanic parishes and Catholic schools. Regarding the former, the study concludes: "Lack of appropriate investment in ministry with this population at a time when most young Catholics in the country are Hispanic is self-defeating." Regarding the latter, the study warns such a gap "may undermine the development of a 'Catholic school culture' among Hispanic Catholics."

Among the other areas identified as calling for immediate attention, I would highlight two obvious and very problematic ones. The first is the demographic fact that in the near future "thousands of culturally competent pastoral leaders" will be reaching retirement age. I don't see any way around this (to me) most obvious point that dioceses and religious communities that are serious about the future of the Church in the United States must ensure that present and future cohorts of new priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers are adequately prepared to meet this challenge.

The second is the problematic financial sustainability of so many Hispanic parish communities. We should never make money the most important consideration in pastoral planning. But neither can we ignore the consequences of a lack of it!


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