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Hosffman Ospino
Hosffman OspinoJune 03, 2024
Rosalinda Ramos participates in an Iskali picnic in 2020. For more than a decade, Iskali—a Chicago-based Catholic organization whose name in Nahuatl symbolizes growth, resurgence and new beginnings—has been supporting young Latinos in their faith formation to help them become transformational leaders. (OSV News photo/courtesy of Iskali)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

We are approaching the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, and turn-of-the-century predictions that the U.S. Catholic experience at this historical juncture would be more Hispanic have not only materialized but also accelerated. Nearly half of all Catholics in the country (about 45 percent, perhaps more) and more than half of all Catholics under 30 self-identify as Hispanic. The Hispanicization of U.S. Catholicism marches forward at a steady pace. In many parts of the United States, ministry with Hispanic Catholics is simply Catholic ministry.

During these last 25 years, what church leaders call Hispanic ministry has evolved significantly, thanks to demographic and cultural changes. By the middle of the 1990s, most Hispanic people in the United States were immigrants. Today, more than two-thirds of all Hispanics are U.S.-born (68 percent). They are mainly English-speaking, although most also communicate comfortably in Spanish. Culturally, they are American and Hispanic. Politically, they are discerning citizens in a polarized nation. The ratio of immigrant to U.S.-born among Hispanic Catholics is about 50/50.

Pastoral leaders doing Hispanic ministry are much more conscious of the urgency to better accompany, form and serve the fastest-growing sector of the Catholic community—i.e., second- and third-generation young Hispanics. These are the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

It has not been easy. For more than half a century, most ministerial structures serving Hispanic Catholics have focused on addressing the pastoral and spiritual needs of immigrants—in Spanish. Such structures have also taken it almost for granted that U.S.-born generations of Hispanic Catholics would stay in the faith and just take care of themselves. Both expectations have gone unfulfilled. Millions of young Hispanics have simply stopped self-identifying as Catholic. The majority made the decision early in their lives.

Hispanic ministry leaders are recalibrating their approaches to be more intentional about accompanying these younger, mostly U.S.-born generations of Catholics. That means more ministerial efforts in English—sometimes in Spanglish—without losing the “Hispanic flavor.” It also means shifting from a ministry focused almost exclusively on rituals and social assistance, which is common in many parishes with Hispanic ministry, to a ministry also focused on empowering Hispanics to form strong families, become engaged citizens, and assume leadership in church and society. They have to do all this without abandoning the strong immigrant base that fills churches every week and remains a lifeline for many parishes.

Making Room for a Renewed Vision

Alongside a large network of parishes, U.S. Catholics have long benefited from a large infrastructure of ministerial organizations, Catholic educational institutions and advocacy groups that have succeeded in advancing the church’s evangelizing mission at various levels. Much of that ministerial infrastructure emerged at a time when the majority of Catholics in the country were white and Euro-American, and it has historically served this group quite well.

Hispanic ministry leaders acknowledge the power of these organizations, educational institutions and advocacy groups. Many have worked tirelessly to ensure that just as they supported the spiritual life of and empowered white, Euro-American Catholics to be faithful Christian disciples and engaged citizens, they would do likewise with the fast-growing Hispanic population—and Catholics from other cultural groups. The record of success achieving that goal is mixed.

Call it bad luck or simply bad timing. The fact is that as the Hispanic Catholic population grows swiftly, the overall Catholic ministerial infrastructure in the country is experiencing severe contraction. There have never been more school-age Catholic children in this country as there are today—most of them Hispanic—but we have closed more than half of our Catholic schools. As millions of Hispanics seek faith communities in which to worship and grow in their faith, some dioceses are closing their parishes, many of them with Hispanic ministry, while others do not have resources to build new ones. The list goes on.

We must acknowledge the efforts of existing Catholic organizations, educational institutions and advocacy groups doing their best to place their resources at the service of the burgeoning Hispanic Catholic population. However, serving Hispanic Catholics requires certain adjustments. Those that seem to be doing rather well are those that have welcomed Hispanics to lead and have built organizational cultures that go beyond “translating,” linguistically or culturally. This has been an opportunity also for Hispanic Catholic leaders to bring our gifts and energy to build, transform and even redefine existing Catholic ministerial structures, while drawing from our own cultural and spiritual wells.

This does not mean that only Hispanics can serve Hispanics. But trusting Hispanic leaders to be at the helm of major ministerial efforts with the ability to connect naturally with Hispanic populations makes a major difference.

Such leadership transitions and the embrace of different cultural paradigms do not happen without resistance. After all, who likes change? No one wants to lose control of what they perceive as theirs. A good number of organizations, educational institutions and advocacy groups in our church still resist or naïvely refuse to embrace the fact that we live in an increasingly Hispanic church. Others do not seem to find a way to adjust and so in the process they dwindle; some become irrelevant in the face of the emerging Catholic populations. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population grows and eagerly makes pastoral demands.

The Rise of Hispanic Ministry Organizations

Tempus fugit, and the fast growth of Hispanic Catholics in our church requires immediate pastoral action. A well-known Catholic mantra is that our institutions and organizations change slowly, therefore we must wait patiently. But we live in a fast-moving world, and as a growing church we need to be nimble in responding to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the Hispanic Catholic population, especially those of young Hispanics. If we fail to engage the Hispanic adolescent now, four or five years from now we will have lost the young adult—and most likely an entire future family. If we do not form, affirm and empower the young Hispanic Catholic child today, how can we expect tomorrow’s young adult to consider a vocation to ecclesial ministry or even to support any of our pastoral efforts?

In recent decades, our church has seen the rise of a core group of Catholic ministerial organizations that understand the urgency of addressing directly the needs of Hispanic Catholics. They have at least three things in common. One, they specialize in serving the immediate pastoral, spiritual and intellectual needs of Hispanic Catholics. Two, they operate with a sense of urgency, knowing that waiting too long for current ministerial structures to change or merely settling on lukewarm commitments to Hispanic ministry are not viable options. Three, many were inspired by the recommendations emerging from major meetings discussing Catholic Hispanic ministry, especially the national Encuentros.

Some of these ministerial organizations rose to fill a pastoral vacuum. In 1972, the Mexican American Cultural Center was established in San Antonio, Tex., as the first Catholic center in the United States dedicated to developing resources to serve Hispanic Catholics, prepare pastoral leaders to serve Spanish-speaking Catholics, and serve as a center of pastoral theological reflection. In 2008, the center became the Mexican American Catholic College.

Others emerged to support the work of dioceses and parishes in a particular region. In 1979, the Southeast Pastoral Institute was established in Miami in response to the fast growth of the Hispanic population in that part of the country, fueled by the Cuban diaspora and large numbers of migrants from Central America, South America and the Caribbean. From its early days, SEPI has focused its energy on accompanying young Hispanic Catholics. Today it also offers a large variety of pastoral services to 30 dioceses in the Southeast.

Hispanic ministry in the late 1980s and through the ’90s experienced a boom as hundreds of Catholic parishes nationwide launched new pastoral initiatives to serve Hispanics. The number of parishes with formal Hispanic ministry practically doubled. Dioceses established offices of Hispanic ministry to support their work while helping other diocesan offices channel services and resources to serve the growing Hispanic community. In 1991, the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors of Hispanic Ministry was created to gather and support diocesan leaders overseeing Hispanic ministry.

Fostering specialized ministries serving Hispanic Catholics has become an ecclesial priority. Translating programs developed for other Catholic populations, importing them from Latin America or the Caribbean, or simply hoping that going to church on Sundays will keep Hispanics Catholic are measures that fall short of meeting the complex pastoral needs of Hispanics. In 1994, Instituto Fe y Vida was established to offer training to pastoral leaders who needed to specialize in serving young Hispanic Catholics. It was a visionary effort that has yielded many fruits. It is difficult to do ministry with young Hispanic Catholics today in the United States without seriously engaging the research, leadership training programs and national initiatives led by Instituto Fe y Vida.

Catholic women religious in the United States are quite well organized, and most are represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; several Hispanic women have served in L.C.W.R. leadership. In 2008, however, the Asociación de Hermanas Latinas Misioneras en América was established to more intentionally support the more than 2,000 Hispanic women religious serving in hundreds of parishes and ministries throughout the United States, most of them immigrants. A.H.L.M.A. complements the accompaniment of existing women religious organizations in the country as a network “to support, accompany and empower Latina sisters in their ministry and service for consecrated life, for the church and society in the United States,” according to its mission statement.

This is just a sample of the variety of Hispanic ministerial organizations that have emerged in recent years and are poised to support and define the direction of Catholic ministerial life in the United States in an increasingly Hispanic church.

Solid Infrastructure and Supporters

Many U.S. Catholic ministerial organizations, educational organizations and advocacy groups have developed structures and practices that mirror their most successful counterparts in non-ecclesial settings. They have a solid organizational infrastructure and have learned to inspire a solid base of supporters and members to participate in their mission. They have built important networks, developed strong financial practices and attracted creative, faith-filled leaders who passionately steer them.

The Leadership Roundtable, for instance, draws from the experience and wisdom of Catholic leaders with a track record of success in different industries and places these at the service of ministerial entities. Another example, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or Focus, has become one of the most successful and effective Catholic missionary ministries forming disciples among college students in hundreds of higher-education institutions in the United States and throughout the world. And the Catholic Theological Society of America is the largest Catholic theological guild in the world.

Catholic Hispanic ministry organizations have a few things in common with these larger and more structured efforts. They are profoundly Catholic, guided by leaders who are in love with their faith, are committed to building the church, and are at the forefront of some of the most urgent ministerial and theological questions of the day. There are also some differences, including the scope and services, levels of influence, and the amount of resources available to advance their mission.

Hispanic ministry organizations must contend with how the prevalent U.S. Catholic pastoral imagination perceives outreach to Hispanic Catholics: as a specialized effort among many other competing priorities, one that is often seen as optional and carried out primarily by Hispanics or other interested pastoral leaders. There is a lot of room for pastoral conversion, mindful that nearly half of all Catholics in the country self-identify as Hispanic. Many Hispanic ministerial organizations were born on the periphery of the church’s ministerial activity—and most remain there.

The reasons for this peripheral existence vary. First, there are few opportunities to collaborate with larger ministerial organizations that share similar missions. Also, some Hispanic ministerial organizations are seen as “countercultural,” serving a population that has historically lived at the margins of church and society. And with a few exceptions, especially in the South and the West, there are scant resources allocated to Hispanic ministry and the organizations that support it.

In 2023, Boston College published the report “Ministry With Young Hispanic Catholics: Towards a Recipe for Growth and Success,” of which I was the author. The report brings attention to the almost miraculous way in which ministerial organizations dedicated to serving young Hispanic Catholics subsist. In that report, I wrote that these organizations “manage to operate on significantly limited financial and human resources, and often without the support of more stable church structures, even when they are part of dioceses or Catholic educational institutions. Though one can commend their ability to do so, lack of investment in these efforts makes them operationally vulnerable and unable to expand efforts.”

These Hispanic ministry organizations are poised to support and define the direction of Catholic ministerial life in the United States in an increasingly Hispanic church, but first we need to find ways to support and strengthen them to advance their respective missions.

Nuevo Momento

The Clough School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College recently launched a five-year initiative called “Nuevo Momento: Leadership and Capacity Building for Ministerial Organizations Serving Hispanic Catholics.” It is my privilege to serve as its director and principal investigator. The initiative is supported by a $15 million grant from Lilly Endowment. Fifteen Catholic Hispanic ministry organizations have been invited to participate.

Nuevo Momento has four building blocks: strengthen organizational capacity; enhance financial sustainability; provide academic formation for a new generation of leaders, with particular focus on empowering U.S.-born/U.S.-reared Hispanic young adults; and make available sizable subgrants to invest in internal capacity-building. More than 50 percent of the entire grant will go directly to organizations to achieve the fourth goal.

To support these 15 organizations in the process of strengthening organizational capacity and enhancing financial sustainability, the Clough School has secured the commitment of excellent partners—such as the Leadership Roundtable, For Impact and the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University, all of which have a successful track record working with faith-based organizations. Besides drawing from leadership and academic resources within Boston College, Nuevo Momento will have the support of consulting groups such as Corresponsables de Dios, founded by a Hispanic Catholic leader, and a series of professional consultants that will join the initiative as the programs are set in motion.

A most exciting aspect of Nuevo Momento is the development of a new cohort-based, hybrid master of ministerial leadership degree program at the Clough School, which will be launched in summer 2025. The degree design includes strong mentorship components, creative modules that integrate theology and management theory to build skills, and real-life experiences to develop leadership competencies. The program seeks to empower Hispanic pastoral leaders—and others—working or planning to work in faith-based organizations. The first three cohorts for the degree will be students directly associated with the organizations already invited to be part of the initiative.

Empowering to Dream

Nuevo Momento was designed to invest directly in the organizations that will likely have a major say about Catholic ministerial life in the foreseeable future as the Hispanic presence continues to grow.

There is no predefined outcome. Each organization in Nuevo Momento is in a different place, and growth will be determined by each organization’s ability to maximize the resources provided by the initiative. The 15 organizations will work together for five years, with access to top quality capacity-building programs, professional mentorship and generous financial support. They will be engaged in an unprecedented exercise of pastoral de conjunto, a category well known among Hispanic Catholics that points to coordinated collaboration in ministry with a shared sense of mission, a desire for inclusion of many voices and experiences, and a commitment to ecclesial communion.

I share in the excitement of these ministerial organizations and look forward to journeying with them. I dream with their leaders with the conviction that we live in a new moment, un Nuevo Momento.

•••

The 15 Hispanic ministry organizations invited to be part of Nuevo Momento are:

Asociación de Hermanas Latinas Misioneras en América

• Asociación Nacional de Sacerdotes Hispanos

• Corazón Puro

• Federación de Institutos Pastorales

• Federation for Catechesis with Hispanics

• Instituto Fe y Vida, Inc.

• Iskali

• La RED Nacional de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana

• Mexican American Catholic College

• National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry

• National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors of Hispanic Ministry

• National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry

• Northwest Regional Office for Hispanic Affairs

• Pastoral Migratoria

• Southeast Pastoral Institute

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