10 Things to know about Hispanic Catholics

By Timothy Matovina

Timothy Matovina is the executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. He is the author of Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton University Press).

The growing Hispanic presence is transforming U.S. Catholic life. Here are 10 basic facts that many Catholics do not know about the people who now make up more than a third of the church in the United States.

1 Hispanics were the first Roman Catholics in what is now the United States.

Spanish-speaking Catholics have lived in what is now the United States for twice as long as the nation has existed. The first diocese in the New World was established in 1511 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, now a commonwealth associated with the United States. Catholic subjects of the Spanish crown founded the first permanent European settlement within the current borders of the 50 states at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, four decades before the establishment of the first British colony at Jamestown. In 1598 Spanish subjects traversed present-day El Paso, Texas and proceeded north to establish the permanent foundation of Catholicism in what is now the Southwest.

Because of this longstanding presence, the first large group of Hispanic Catholics became part of the United States without ever leaving home, as they were incorporated into its boundaries during U.S. territorial expansion into Florida and then westward.

Hispanic Catholics settled in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1716. In 1834 a Protestant newcomer murdered the local Catholic pastor, Father José Antonio Díaz de León, though a white judge exonerated him on the outrageous defense that this revered priest had committed suicide. The new U.S. settlers drove many other Mexican residents from their lands and burned the Catholic church building to the ground.

Yet when a replacement for Father Díaz de León finally arrived 13 years after the murder, the new priest was amazed to find that for all those years Mexican Catholics had continued to gather in private homes for Sunday worship, feast days, and catechesis of their children. Such instances of Hispanics’ faith and endurance in the conquered territories of the Southwest are one of the most frequently overlooked chapters in U.S. Catholic history.

2 Hispanics are a diverse group.

A growing number of Hispanics are in the middle or even upper classes, but most are a poor or working class population who face daily hardships, such as a lack of opportunities in education and employment, inadequate health care, and general strain on family cohesion and personal well-being.

Regional and generational differences further contribute to the tremendous diversity among U.S. Hispanics, as do the national backgrounds from which they or their ancestors originate. Today Spanish is a primary language in 22 countries, all of which have native daughters and sons residing in the United States, the second largest and most diverse Spanish-speaking nation in the world.

About two thirds of the 50 million Hispanics in the United States are ethnically Mexicans, but there are also significant numbers from Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and Central American backgrounds, along with some South Americans and a growing number from “mixed” Hispanic parentages. Pastoral leaders need to be aware of the different religious traditions, customs, and even Spanish words of these Hispanic groups.

At St. Cecilia Parish in New York, during the mid-1990s when newly arrived Mexican immigrants enshrined their national patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in a niche within the church, their fellow parishioners pressed for equally prominent displays of their own Marian images. Puerto Ricans honored their patroness, Nuestra Señora de la Divina Providencia, and Ecuadorans the Virgin of Cisne.

Their pastor wisely guided this “renewed interest in patron saints” as a means to build unity and a greater sense of belonging among all parishioners. Effective pastoral leadership like this is needed to address the potential for ethnic rivalry, especially when one Hispanic group is numerically larger than others in a parish.

3 Most Hispanics are not immigrants.

Immigration is a hot topic for many Americans, including Catholics. Among our bishops, immigration is the social issue that draws the most consistent response across regions and theological perspectives, complementing the bishops’ more frequently noted defense of the right to life. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles reflects the view of many in his assertion that immigration is “the greatest civil rights test of our generation.”

Yet the majority of Latinos—nearly 70 percent, according to the 2010 census—are not immigrants. Immigration debates, as essential as they are, often blind us to the staggering demographic reality of Hispanic generational transition: Over the next three decades the number of third-generation Hispanics will triple, the second generation will double, and the overall percentage (though not necessarily the raw numbers) of first-generation immigrants will decline. Hispanics are a very young group compared to the rest of the U.S. population, and they already comprise more than half of U.S. Catholics under the age of 25.

The transition from immigrant to U.S.-born or U.S.-reared generations is at the heart of the evangelization challenge among Hispanics. As they begin to surpass their parents’ and grandparents’ often limited formal education, young Hispanics need catechesis that engages their minds as well as their hearts.

The vast majority of young Hispanics are fluent in English, which in many instances causes communication difficulties with Spanish-dominant parents. Often the faith of their elders does not adequately address the complex reality of the world in which young people live. They need formation in the Catholic faith and teachings that both addresses that reality and builds on their elders’ religious traditions.

While immigrants and their needs are crucial, passing on the Catholic faith to young Hispanics is an even more urgent priority for the entire U.S. Catholic Church. How we address this priority today in Catholic schools, catechetical programs, and youth ministries will in large part determine what our church will be tomorrow.

4 Hispanics have deep devotion to Jesus and to his eucharistic presence.

Most U.S. Catholics are aware of Hispanic devotion offered in places like Mexico’s famous shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Far fewer are aware that nearly half the shrines dedicated to miraculous images in colonial Mexico are focused on an image of Christ.

Hispanic traditions during the Advent and Christmas seasons enable them to accompany Mary and Joseph on the way to Jesus’ birthplace at Bethlehem (posadas), place the child Jesus in the crib (acostada del niño), worship at the manger scene (nacimiento), process with the magi (los santos reyes), and, especially in Puerto Rican communities, honor family and friends with an unexpected choral visit to their homes (parrandas).

Latinos also accompany Jesus on Good Friday through the way of the cross (via crucis), the seven last words of Christ (siete palabras), his entombment (servicio del santo entierro), and in a wake service at which he is remembered and his sorrowful mother consoled (pésame).

The U.S. bishops offered a profound reflection on such devotions in their 1983 pastoral The Hispanic Presence: Challenge and Commitment: “Hispanic spirituality places strong emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, especially when he appears weak and suffering, as in the crib, and in his passion and death.”

The desire for intimate contact with Jesus is also evident in Hispanic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Whether in Corpus Christi processions, at the altar of repose on Holy Thursday, during nocturnal adoration, or in a simple visit before the tabernacle in a parish church, many Hispanics have a keen sense of Christ’s real eucharistic presence as Lord and brother.

5 Hispanic cultures are focused on community.

Numerous Spanish-language dichos (sayings or proverbs) underscore the conviction that people are profoundly shaped and known through their relationships. For example, one popular expression is: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are). As one Hispanic woman told me: “For the Hispanic, we cannot know someone without knowing their family. The first question we ask when we meet someone is ‘Where are you from? Who is your family?’ ”

Rooted in the Catholic influence on Latin American life and cultures across centuries, this focus on community is often expressed in practical solidarity like Hispanics’ opening their homes to others, sharing the little they have, and their concern for the well-being of family, friends, and even strangers. It is also expressed in Hispanics’ joy, spontaneity, and affectivity, which enrich parish events and worship in many U.S. Catholic congregations.

Hispanic faith expressions are imbued with this community-focused understanding of the human person. In the face of emphases on the autonomous individual in modern cultures, Hispanic devotions highlight relationships like those between Jesus and Mary. The presence of both Jesus and Mary in traditional Hispanic Good Friday rituals, for example, reveals the mutual love of mother and son that death cannot break. Mary and Jesus walk together in their hour of gravest need, while devotees walk along and ritually imitate what mother and son did at the first way of the cross in Jerusalem.

Theologian Roberto Goizueta says their prayers express a “theology of accompaniment”: Hispanic devotees accompany Jesus and Mary in prayer with unwavering confidence that their savior and his loving mother will also accompany them in their daily lives and struggles. This community-focused dimension of Hispanic prayer is conducive to celebrating the Eucharist as a communion between God and all of humankind and thus is especially important for priests, deacons, and other liturgical ministers who lead Hispanics in sacramental worship.

6 Hispanics founded the most influential retreat movement in the country.

Eduardo Bonnín and other laymen in Mallorca, Spain established the Cursillo de Cristiandad (Short Course in Christianity) in the wake of World War II. In 1957 two of their countrymen assigned to a Waco, Texas military base collaborated with local priest Father Gabriel Fernández to lead the first Cursillo weekend retreat in the United States. Four years later, Cursillista team members from previous Spanish-language weekends led the first English-language Cursillo.

By the following year cursillistas had conducted retreats in places such as San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Boston, and others. Over the ensuing two decades nearly every diocese in the United States introduced the Cursillo movement, impacting literally millions of Catholics from a variety of backgrounds.

As Cursillo spread, a number of retreat programs that closely emulate its core dynamics appeared: Teens Encounter Christ (TEC), Search (and its Spanish counterpart Búsqueda), Kairos, Christ Renews His Parish, and the Protestant Walk to Emmaus and youth-oriented Chrysalis retreats, among others. Thus the Hispanic-founded Cursillo had a far-reaching impact on other Catholics and even on Protestants, making it the most influential weekend retreat movement in the United States.

7 Hispanics pioneered the faith-based model of community organizing.

While African Americans forged church involvement in social transformation through the civil rights movement, Saul Alinsky’s organizing model, developed in his well-known work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the late 1930s, has been among the most influential broad-based community organizing efforts in the United States.

The first predominantly Hispanic faith-based community organization, San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), played a key role in transforming Alinsky’s organizing model to root it more deeply in local congregations and the faith of their members. Organizer Ernie Cortés worked with lay leaders and priests to establish COPS among ethnic Mexican Catholic parishes in the working-class neighborhoods of the city’s west side.

COPS members learned from Alinsky’s organizing model, but as Hispanic Catholics they also infused Alinsky’s style of organizing with the faith of their core leaders: parishioners who perceived their activism as an extension of their commitment to God, church, family, and neighborhood. The COPS approach of building a community organization on the foundation of congregations and faith-based leaders has been adapted and further developed in various forms in faith-based community organizations, which now total some 160 organizations and exist in nearly every state.

8 A growing number of Hispanics are in the canonization process.

Like the wider Hispanic Catholic population, those in the process of canonization include both immigrants and U.S.-born Hispanics.

Pope John Paul II beatified Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago (1918–1963) in 2001, advancing him to the final stage before canonization. Blessed Carlos is known in his native Puerto Rico for his virtue, his love of the liturgy, his translations of Catholic rites into Spanish, and his commitment to teach others about the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He is the first layperson born in a territory of the United States to be beatified.

Father Félix Varela y Morales (1788–1853) is among those declared venerable, the step before beatification in the canonization process. When the Spanish regime condemned him to death in 1823 because of his support for Cuban independence, he fled to New York and worked as a parish priest and eventually as diocesan vicar general. He is recognized as a forerunner of Cuban pro-independence thought and for his dedicated pastoral service in New York.

Bishop Alphonse Gallegos (1931–1991) is in the initial stage of the canonization process. He was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, joined the Augustinian Recollects, and served as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Sacramento, California for the last decade of his life. His cause for sainthood was opened 14 years after his tragic death from a car that struck him as he tried to push his stalled vehicle to the roadside.

Two Franciscan priests, renowned as founders of missions in the colonial Southwest, are also in the process of canonization: Blessed Junípero Serra (1713–1784) for his apostolic labors in California and Venerable Antonio Margil de Jesús (1657–1726) in Texas. The canonization causes of still other missioners of Spain in territories now part of the United States are currently active, such as Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino (1645–1711) in Arizona, groups of Franciscan and Jesuit martyrs who respectively initiated missionary activities in present-day Georgia and Virginia, and Blessed Diego de Luis de San Vitores (1627–1672), a Jesuit on the island of Guam.

9 Hispanics have the largest percentage of lay Catholics in faith formation and pastoral leadership programs.

The greatest limitation for Hispanic Catholic communities today is the scarce number of Hispanic priests. Indeed, Hispanics are underrepresented in every category of ministry leadership and formation except one: They are overrepresented among lay leaders currently enrolled in formation programs.

While permanent deacons and their wives, professional lay ministers, women religious, and non-Hispanic priests provide vital leadership—and fostering such religious vocations remains imperative—grassroots Hispanic Catholic lay leaders are the most abundant resource for Hispanic ministry. They do the bulk of everyday ministry as catechists, youth leaders, prayer group leaders, fund-raisers, community organizers, spiritual advisors, translators, immigrant advocates, and much more. Providing personnel and funding for the formation of these lay Hispanic leaders is a crucial challenge in dioceses and parishes across the country.

Another challenge is to help Hispanics who complete diocesan formation programs transition to parish and diocesan leadership responsibilities, and even develop pathways for them to embrace other vocations such as professional lay minister or permanent deacon.

Often the witness of lay Catholics can revitalize the practice of the faith among their peers even more effectively than the teaching of a priest, deacon, or professional lay minister. Whether in sacramental preparation, evangelization groups, apostolic movements, small faith communities, youth ministries, Catholic schools, and more, pastors and other church personnel today have a magnificent opportunity to engage Hispanic lay leaders who are a prime force for advancing the Catholic faith in our parish communities and in the ordinary circumstances of U.S. daily life.

10 The Hispanic presence is transforming parish life.

The involvement and the sheer number of Hispanics are important factors in what is nothing less than a historic shift in the central institution of U.S. Catholic life: the parish.

A century ago when the flows of European immigration were at their zenith, numerous national parishes catered to a particular language or cultural group. Today, due to the decreasing number of priests, financial constraints, and growing ethnic diversity, an increasing number of U.S. parishes—currently some 30 percent, more than 5,000 in all—have significant groups of parishioners from at least two language or cultural groups. Hispanics are a major force in the ongoing evolution of the U.S. Catholic parish from the ethnic enclave to the shared or multicultural congregation.

Unfortunately the different groups in a parish often coexist in isolation or even in conflict. One woman began to feel “my church isn’t my church anymore” when the number of Spanish-speaking parishioners increased. Still, a pitfall to be avoided in addressing such concerns is equating unity with uniformity.

In retrospect, the incorporation of European-descent Catholics into English-speaking parishes over three generations was prudent, even though most were initially “segregated” in national parishes. Their gradual integration allowed both for the practice of their Catholic faith and for ethnic unity among Europeans to emerge in U.S. parishes.

Today the expectation that Hispanics, even recent immigrants, participate primarily or even exclusively in English-language Masses for the sake of “unity” frequently provides a superficial harmony at best. In many cases it causes frustration, resentment, and Hispanics’ choice to vote with their feet and abandon participation in Catholic parish life.

Moreover, we need to learn that building unity within a diverse congregation is not merely a matter of tolerance or “celebrating differences,” as is often imagined. Frequently at stake are the issues of how decisions are made and by whom. Intentionally or not, even many parish leaders who welcome their Hispanic sisters and brothers communicate the message that Hispanics are the “guests” and that Euro-American Catholics are the “owners” of the house.

While hospitality to newcomers is an essential first step, established parishioners must go beyond receiving others in “our” parish to welcoming them home to their own church. The experience of Hispanic and other newcomers throughout the long saga of U.S. Catholicism underscores that God’s house is not holy just because all are welcome. God’s house is holy because all the baptized belong as valued members of the household.