The remarkable number of Baptisms, First Communions, and Confirmations among Hispanics/Latinos in Catholic parishes across the nation is perhaps the most eloquent statement about their emergence as a majority population within the Catholic Church in the United States. In fact, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 54% of Catholics born after 1982 are Hispanics/Latinos.[i] Another remarkable number is that only 3% of Catholic Hispanic/Latino children attend Catholic schools.[ii] Since Catholic schools can be the most effective means of generating Catholic identity and leadership, this low percentage leads us to ask the question: How is the Church in the United States transmitting the faith to the largest segment of its population today? The short answer to this question resides within the catechetical ministries that take place in the almost five thousand parishes where the Sunday Liturgy is celebrated in Spanish. For the most part, these are the parishes where Hispanics/Latinos feel most at home and where their children receive Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. The organization of catechetical ministries in these parishes varies. Some of the differences include program requirements, books used, costs, and the duration of the program, and can play a role in the families’ decisions to enroll their children in a particular parish catechetical program.
Only in English?
However, the most significant question for most Hispanic families concerns whether these ministries are offered only in English or in both English and Spanish. My experience of thirty years in ministry at various levels of the Church shows that parishes that offer catechesis in both English and Spanish reach a larger segment of the Hispanic/Latino population. As a result of this approach, the faith reaches more children and their families. When a parish offers catechesis in Spanish, it also becomes possible for Hispanic/Latino parents to be catechists to their own children, regardless of their language preference. All Saints Parish in Fort Worth, TX, offers a good example of this practice. This parish reaches over 1,300 children with catechesis in both English and Spanish. The number of catechists, young and old, involved in this ministry is quite inspiring. Also impressive is the number of teenagers and young adults involved in various youth groups that come together under one vision for youth ministry and serve both Texan and Mexican parish families alike. The sense of unity that exists among all catechists and the families they serve is quite extraordinary—and they all feel a strong sense of belonging to the parish. The most important source of this unity in diversity comes from the pastor, first, and from the catechists themselves. The respectful and inclusive way in which they talk about everyone in the parish sends a clear message to the students and their families that they are all one parish community. Even though they have faith formation classes in two different languages, they come together at different times and for different reasons over the year, including bilingual liturgical celebrations, cultural functions, fundraising activities, and community services. Despite the success of All Saints and hundreds of parishes that follow this bilingual catechetical model, approximately one third of the U.S. parishes where Mass is celebrated in Spanish offer catechetical ministries only in English. Recently, while visiting a diocese in the Midwest, I met a couple from Costa Rica who told me that their newly assigned pastor had disbanded the catechetical ministries conducted in Spanish. Such a decision caused sadness and even anger among a Hispanic/Latino community that could not understand why the pastor was abolishing an established successful ministry. The couple conveyed to me that one of the most bewildering aspects of this event was that the Hispanic/Latino catechetical leaders were not even consulted about a decision that impacted their own children in a very direct way. They told me that this change has demoralized the Hispanic/Latino community, has resulted in fewer Hispanic/Latino children and their families participating in the catechetical program, and has caused the loss of Hispanic/Latino catechists who were no longer needed in the parish.
What are the assumptions underlying an “English only” approach to catechesis in parishes with Spanish language Sunday liturgies? Here is a sample:
- Hispanic/Latino children understand English better.
- They will live their faith as adults in an English-speaking church.
- Having one program produces unity among all the children and young people in the parish.
- It is less work and a simpler approach to have only one program.
All these reasons appear to make some sense and to be well intentioned. However, they are based on assumptions that may need to be tested. First, it is quite a generalization to say that all Hispanic/Latino children of new immigrant families better understand English than Spanish, particularly those preparing to receive First Communion. These children usually spend the first five years of life absorbing the religious language, symbols, and practices of their Catholic faith in the context of their home, where only Spanish is spoken. So much can be lost in translation as these children are cut off from the rich tradition and family practices transmitted to them by their parents and extended family. These children also may not understand as much of the teaching in English as the catechists may think, or hope. In addition, research conducted by the Hispanic Pew Research Center consistently shows that the ability to speak Spanish is a leading indicator for second and third generation Hispanics/Latinos to keep their Catholic identity. While 69% of foreign-born Hispanics are considered Catholic, this number decreases to 59% for 2nd generation Hispanics and to 40% for 3rd generation Hispanics.[iii] In other words, these young people are more likely to remain Catholic if they are bilingual and bicultural. My son, Jonathan, is a good example of this fact. At twenty-two years of age, and with an engineering degree, Jonathan wears a medal with the image of San Juan Diego around his neck. As for my daughters, Renata and Daniela, they are also bilingual and bicultural, and can draw from the wells of their two cultural backgrounds to drink from the unique ways in which the Holy Spirit is present in Mexican and U.S. American cultures. Third, while catechetical programs conducted in English and led by inter-culturally competent catechists can generate a sense of unity among culturally diverse children and young people, there is nothing they can do with the children who do not to participate in the program. Moreover, there is a difference between unity and uniformity. A parish that offers only English language catechesis tends to gather people who are already more or less alike, while discouraging the participation of those with a strong preference to speak Spanish.
Reflecting Our Complexity
I belong to St. Camillus Parish, in Silver Spring, MD. We have catechetical programs in English, Spanish, and French; nonetheless, there is a real sense of unity among the catechists and the children in the different programs. We celebrate First Communion and Confirmation in a tri-lingual liturgy that feels like the Feast of Pentecost. It is such a wonderful experience of unity in diversity where the Holy Spirit is the true source of unity, generating communion across cultures, generations and races. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Every culture offers values and positive ways to enrich the way we proclaim, understand and live the Gospel.”[iv] Further, the ministry of catechesis, particularly in the context of the New Evangelization, needs to reflect the complexity of the cultural reality it inhabits, and to communicate how the transforming power of the Holy Spirit generates unity among peoples from diverse cultures. Cultural diversity will continue to grow in decades to come in the United States, thus changing the landscape in our parishes and communities. Such diversity is a great gift to the Church, but it also requires creativity and a sense of mission in order to foster unity in diversity through a strong Catholic identity. Looking to the future, how can the Catholic Church in the United States increase its effectiveness in transmitting, through words and deeds, the faith to the ever-growing population of Hispanic/Latino youth? Some good answers to this question can be found in a resource recently developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The resource, titled Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM), identifies five principles that have proven to be helpful in strengthening the Catholic identity of Hispanics/Latinos. Here is a brief overview of these five principles and how they may apply to catechesis among Hispanic/Latino young people and other ethnic groups:
a) Articulate a vision of ministry based on Ecclesial Integration/Inclusion. This principle calls for the promotion of culturally specific ministries, groups, and ecclesial movements in order to foster conversion and to build community. It also warns against the temptation to expect everyone to assimilate into a one-size-fits-all group or catechetical program.
b) Foster the inculturation of the Gospel in all cultures.
This point calls us to commit to the New Evangelization’s spirit of mission and its ongoing transformation of all cultures. Here the bishops stress that the Church exists to evangelize, not to Americanize.
c) Plan with people, not for people.
With this point, the bishops urge us to include parishioners in the planning processes and the decision-making processes for catechetical programs and projects that impact them. The document cautions us to avoid the temptation of thinking that we know the needs of others better than they do.
d) Cast a bigger net.
The fourth point promotes the formation of different catechetical programs, groups, and initiatives in order to reach a greater number of people from all cultural communities in our parishes. It also refutes the idea that allowing the formation of culturally specific ministries creates division.
e) Empower indigenous leadership.
In the final point, the bishops charge us to identify and mentor catechetical leaders and ministers who come from each cultural group in order that they can minister both to their own cultural community and to the entire parish. This point warns against using us-them language and counsels against the tendency to see one’s own culture as better or more valuable than the culture of others.
These principles can usefully guide pastors and their teams as they discern the best ways to reach, engage, teach, and mentor millions of Hispanic/Latino young people and their families into discipleship within the Catholic Church and in society, for decades to come. Alejandro Aguilera-Titus has thirty years of experience in ministry with emphasis on leadership development, faith formation and youth ministry. He is a nationally known speaker and writer highly regarded for his practical application of theological thought to ministry in culturally diverse settings. Alejandro holds a M.A. in Theology from the University of Portland and is a Doctor in Ministry Candidate at Barry University. He currently works at the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, USCCB. In addition, Alejandro is an adjunct faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
This article was originally on pages 10-11 of the printed edition.