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J.D. Long-GarcíaFebruary 23, 2023
Father Luis Garcia is seen during a Mass of ordination to the priesthood at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston June 4, 2022. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)

In an essay for America, Cardinal Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, called for a more inclusive church, one that recognizes the leadership of women and welcomes L.G.B.T. people. That inclusive church should “embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all the baptized to the table of the Lord.” (The cardinal clarified on “Jesuitical” that he meant baptized Catholics.)

Cardinal McElroy’s essay—which is inspired by the ongoing Synod on Synodality—sparked a wide range of reactions. The changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States raises another question: How well do Cardinal McElroy’s views reflect the various perspectives present in the growing Latino community?

It is not an easy question to answer.

On one hand, Cardinal McElroy certainly echoes many of the sentiments expressed in the national synthesis document, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released in September. On the other hand, the document’s emerging themes—reported by dioceses across the country—are not broken down by ethnic community.

How well do Cardinal McElroy’s views reflect the various perspectives present in the growing Latino community? It is not an easy question to answer.

The synthesis document estimates that 700,000 U.S. Catholics participated in the synod. That number, while impressive, would be a little over 1 percent of the nearly 62 million Catholics in the United States. How many participants were Latino? We don’t know. In general, participation in synod consultations fluctuated significantly from one diocese to the next, from one parish to another.

What Latino communities emphasized in synodal consultations likely also varied considerably from one parish to the next. It has become cliché to say it, but Latinos are not monolithic. Nevertheless, to try to get a better sense of how Latino Catholics are engaging with the synod, America interviewed a few participants from across the country.

Young Catholics and a welcoming church

As Cardinal McElroy noted, the synthesis document reports that the marginalization of certain groups “has become a source of scandal for some youth who perceive the Church as hypocritical and failing to act consistently with justice toward these diverse communities.” It also reports “a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people.”

Communities in South Florida are expressing similar concerns, according to Carmen Villafañe, a spiritual director and theology teacher in the Archdiocese of Miami. The listening sessions she helped organize included one with young men who were high school seniors.

“Their families felt that the Catholic Church wasn’t addressing their needs—for transparency, for reconciliation,” she said. “That came out of the mouths of 17-year-olds. They want less ritual, and more listening.”

The desire to become a more welcoming church, which Cardinal McElroy and the synthesis document both stressed, is also important to Latinos, Ms. Villafañe said.

“Their families felt that the Catholic Church wasn’t addressing their needs—for transparency, for reconciliation,” she said. “That came out of the mouths of 17-year-olds.”

“The concept of communion is important to people. Feeling part of something,” she said. Yet even some of her family members who attended Catholic schools are disinclined to attend Mass on a regular basis—in part due to the sexual abuse crisis (another major theme underscored by the synthesis document).

“It does not mean that they’re agnostic or atheist, but it’s very painful,” she said.

Ms. Villafañe noted that, through the national Encuentros gathering, Latino Catholics in the United States have been dialoguing for decades in efforts similar to the global synod. She is also supportive of the efforts of Discerning Deacons, a project promoting prayer and conversations about women in the diaconate. Dialoguing embodies her experience of church.

“Sometimes the church can feel very rigid. Sometimes the Latino culture can be very conservative. But all of this is also full of contradictions,” she said, noting that the acceptance of the L.G.B.T. community is becoming common. “So it’s very difficult to say ‘It’s just like this.’”

Jaime Whitford, a deacon at Queen of Peace Church in Mesa, Ariz., also stressed the need to welcome. He and his wife, Martha, both immigrants from Nicaragua, have been running a Spanish-language couples’ group at their parish for the last 16 years.

The ministry welcomes couples whether they are married sacramentally or civilly or are cohabitating. In fact, the majority of the people who get married in their church have been together more than 10 years, have children and have now decided to seek a sacramental marriage.

During Sunday Spanish-language Masses at Queen of Peace, it is common to see a substantial number of Catholics forgo Communion. Yet Deacon Whitford has found that couples are willing to participate in church activities even if they cannot receive the Eucharist.

“One has to be very careful to not judge,” he said, reacting to one of Cardinal McElroy’s points. “Couples do get angry when they’re judged.… In the end, no one can know the intentions of any other human being.”

“One has to be very careful to not judge,” he said, reacting to one of Cardinal McElroy’s points. “Couples do get angry when they’re judged.… In the end, no one can know the intentions of any other human being.”

In his experience, most of the couples who seek a sacramental marriage do so to receive the Eucharist. “But it isn’t that they feel marginalized because they don’t receive the Eucharist,” Deacon Whitford said. “The church must have an openness to anyone who comes, but that does not require a change in church teaching.”

The deacon believes theological debates often happen in small, elite circles that are disconnected from the day-to-day lives of his community. Parishioners at his church are primarily concerned with other problems, like immigration, economic issues and the passing along of the faith to their children.

Acculturation can make handing down the faith particularly difficult in immigrant families, he said. Many of the couples he works with have children who drift toward agnosticism.

L.G.B.T. Catholics

The synthesis document also noted “the desire to accompany with authenticity LGBTQ+ persons and their families.” That focus resonated with Yunuen Trujillo, who is a lay minister at St. Louis of France in La Puente, Calif. Other extraordinaryeucharistic ministers sometimes ask her if they are supposed to give Communion to L.G.B.T. people.

“When there’s such a focus on who can and cannot take Communion, then people feel that it’s their role to make those decisions,” she said. “We could eliminate that if we just said, you know, Communion is for everyone.”

Ms. Trujillo participated in listening sessions led by an L.G.B.T. ministry. “Obviously, the most pressing concern from everyone was inclusivity and welcoming L.G.B.T.Q. people and families,” she said. She also attended sessions at her parish, where participants expressed concern for individuals who are divorced and pastoral issues related to abortion.

“So basically, the most common reasons why people feel they are no longer welcome in church were mentioned,” she said.

“Some of the young people were a little timid, but those who did share in small groups expressed a concern that L.G.B.T. people do not feel accepted by the church,” she said.

Participants expressed similar concerns at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, according to Rosa Bonilla, who is a pastoral assistant there. One thing that surprised her is how well the community embraced the synodal process.

“The presence of young people really stood out,” Ms. Bonilla said. Her church does have a youth ministry, but she would like to see it grow.

“Some of the young people were a little timid, but those who did share in small groups expressed a concern that L.G.B.T. people do not feel accepted by the church,” she said. “They feel rejected and that they’re not part of the church, the family. Many times the church makes them feel as if they’re different.”

That lack of welcoming was not just of L.G.B.T. people themselves, but also those who support the L.G.B.T. community. “They want to have youth groups where everyone is welcome,” Ms. Bonilla said.

Recognizing women’s leadership

Cardinal McElroy argued that “the church should move toward admitting women to the diaconate.” Similarly, U.S. synodal consultations expressed “a desire for stronger leadership, discernment, and decision-making roles for women—both lay and religious—in their parish communities.” Neither surprised Ms. Bonilla.

“Many women in the parish are talking about the lack of participation of women in the highest places in the church,” she said. “They would like to hear more women’s voices in the church, in liturgical celebrations and making decisions. They want women’s opinions to be considered and their work recognized.”

Lily De Leon said the church does not always recognize the vital role women played in the development of the church. She was involved in the first phase of the synodal listening process in Miami and helped organize consultative sessions with groups from CVX (Christian Life Community South Florida).

Women were at Christ’s side, she said. “The Virgin Mary was at the center of the church,” Ms. De Leon said. “She was there at Pentecost.… In Genesis it’s clear. God did not make one of the sexes better than the other.”

In remote regions throughout the world, women have served as catechists, have helped priests and have prepared families for baptisms, Ms. De Leon said.

Ms. Trujillo likewise hopes the synodal process will lead to concrete action. To truly become more inclusive, the church must make “a public and unequivocal statement of welcome,” she said.

“They have been like deacons in that sense,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that, not as a competition, but to recognize women have worked in this way, which is complementary.”

Ms. De Leon called the synodal process itself a step forward, and has been disappointed to encounter Catholics who are against the synod and have not participated in it. Beyond dialogue, however, she does hope the process will lead to change.

Ms. Trujillo likewise hopes the synodal process will lead to concrete action. To truly become more inclusive, the church must make “a public and unequivocal statement of welcome,” she said.

“We all at some point are in violation of some principle, and we’re still looking for God in one way or another,” she said. “So we have to learn to journey together, regardless of our differences. We’re not here to police each other. We’re here to accompany each other.”

Deacon Whitford lamented that much of the media coverage of the synod has focused on the ordination of women to the diaconate or the priesthood and on whether those not sacramentally married in the church can receive the Eucharist.

“But that’s not what the synod is about,” he said. “The synod is about having a dialogue. To identify the fundamental problems we have as a church. What do you think and what do I think? And how can we, despite our differences, walk together?”

It may be futile to judge how well Cardinal McElroy and the synthesis document reflect the diverse perspectives within Latino communities. There are many communities, and they certainly don’t always agree with each other. Nevertheless, the more the church enters into dialogue, the more its members learn about each other. If enough young Catholics form the habit during the synod, perhaps the conversation will continue for decades.

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