Pastoring Hispanics

As Hispanics in the United States increase in number, they will likely exert more influence on the nation as a whole, and especially on the U.S. Catholic Church. For while Hispanics make up 14.2 percent of the populace, they make up more than a third of its Catholics, a percentage expected to increase through immigration. Typically Hispanics are religious: more than eight in ten continue to practice the religion in which they were raised.

That figure and the data reported here come from an important study by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It is called Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, and its findings are based on 4,600 telephone interviews. The study explores Hispanics of all faiths and none, yet because more than two-thirds are Catholic, some findings can help observers to understand better what Hispanics look for in religion, what they believe and practice, and how they perceive today’s Catholic Church.

Even as the number of Hispanic Catholics has grown, the study finds, nearly one in five have moved in the opposite direction, leaving their parents’ faith behind. Most of these Hispanics affiliate with another worshiping community, usually Pentecostal or evangelical, but more than a quarter stop practicing any religion. Of these “seculars,” two in three are U.S.-born, English-speaking males (not recent immigrants) with markedly higher levels of education and income than the Hispanic population in general, and they hold liberal views on several specific issues. Among the former Catholics, two-thirds support married men and women becoming priests, and three-fifths disapprove of Catholic restrictions on divorce. These secular Hispanics appear to have assimilated to U.S. culture, and their differences with the church are straightforward.


Divergent views about church teaching, however, do not matter much to Hispanic Catholics who have become evangelicals. While nearly half (46 percent) of evangelical converts disapprove of church restrictions on divorce, for example, only 5 percent said they left the church because of the restrictions. Another four in ten converts agree with the teaching on divorce. Converts to evangelical Christianity also continue to hold at least two very positive views of the Catholic Church: two in three believe the church respects women at least as much as it does men, and three in four believe that the church welcomes immigrants. Such positive views did not keep these individuals Catholic, but neither did their differences with church teachings cause them to convert. Since greater percentages of Puerto Ricans convert than any other Hispanic group (nearly one in three), ethnicity may play a role.

Two credible explanations for conversions offer clues about possible pastoral responses. To most Hispanics, worship matters more than issues. Of Catholics who became evangelicals, three in five said they do not typically find the Mass “lively or exciting” (roughly a third gave dissatisfaction with Mass as a reason for converting.) By contrast, nearly three in four Hispanics who practice their Catholic faith said the typical Mass is lively and exciting.

What does “lively and exciting” mean to Hispanic Catholics? For more than half, worship must be charismatic or Spirit-filled. The 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics who call themselves charismatics regularly speak in tongues, evangelize, pray for divine healings and take the Bible literally. Nearly six in ten of them have less than a high school education, and six in ten were born outside the United States. Along with charismatic practices, however, most Hispanic Catholic charismatics retain a strong Catholic identity: they believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, regularly pray to Mary and pray the Rosary. It is striking that three in four of all Hispanic Catholics attend Masses in which several factors come together: the language is Spanish, the presider is Hispanic, and the congregation is mostly Hispanic.

Some Hispanics leave the Catholic Church because they are inspired by an evangelical pastor (35 percent), others because of a deep personal crisis (26 percent) or marriage to an evangelical (14 percent). But the former Catholics themselves gave the most plausible explanation: more than eight in ten desired a direct, personal experience of God. Such a desire would be good news, were it not for the heartbreaking inference that they did not experience such an encounter at their local parish. These people are not angry or negative about Catholicism. Rather, they yearn for something deeply spiritual: more of God. While most Hispanic Catholics find the Mass lively and exciting and stay, another group finds worship lacking and, seeking a direct personal experience of God in community worship, quietly go elsewhere. If parishes are to reduce the departure of nearly one in five Hispanics, they will have to meet this spiritual need.

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America Gomez
11 years 1 month ago
I wonder how this data would compare to a similar study done on non-Hispanic Catholics. My guess is that it may not be much different. We find more and more Catholics these days wanting to be “entertained” during Sunday worship. So many are attending church services at evangelical churches attracted by “inspiring” preaching, while, in their perspective, not denying their own Catholic beliefs. It is the “me” generation looking for “spiritual goose bumps” but without commitment. They want to be “inspired” but not “challenged”. Yes, we are losing Hispanic Catholics to evangelical churches and in greater numbers than ever, but this is also due to these churches having become more “Hispanic friendly” and to aggressive recruiting practices that prey mostly on lack of basic doctrinal foundation, plain and simple. They easily confuse the least educated, and that is really tragic. Evangelical churches have tapped on a gold mine with Hispanic Catholics, especially among the newcomers. Shame on us. What are we going to do about it?
James Whalen
11 years 1 month ago
The American Catholic Church is still the Irish American catholic Church, thank God. The Cardinals, Bishops and pastors sre still Irish, thank God. I say this becasue the Irsh Americans and the Hispanics do not get along. The Irsih love the poor Hispanics but they do not like them. The cultural differences are so vast and the indifference of the Hispanics to American culture so stubbornm, it is doubtful they will ever meet. The Irish love and miss the Latin mass and the awsome silence of church services. The Hispanics want bongo drums and lots of noise. Lots of noise. Dancing in the isles. Since the Irish are still running things (thank God) the Hispanics view our dislike of their noise as anti-Hispanic. We are. But not to worry! With ten million illegal Mexicans about to become legal and with the 5.6 babies (what is a .6 baby) these ten million will produce, the Hispanics will have nothing to fear. Imagine St Patick's day with "Did your mother come from Mexico" or When Meixican Eyes are Smiling" or "The Mexican Soldier Boy" or... In the near future we will see a sign on the door of St Patrick's -- "English mass at 10am" Well, we had a good run. I hope they let us keep the parade. How will they handle the Irish Gay and Lesbian bunch the AOH have kept out?
11 years 1 month ago
Lots of Mexicans who left the Church were only nominal Catholics in the first place. I used to ask them if they had their children baptized when they said they were Catholic but often they did not. And the children had not made their First Communion and the parents had not married in the Church. So I don't think we are "losing" many. We never had them in the first place. We just thought we did.
11 years 1 month ago
St. Augustine said God has many people in his heart whom the Church does not have and vice versa. I think we never had them in the first place. Most Mexicans I have known were nominal Catholics who never married in the Church, had their children baptized or had them make their First Communion. We just thought we had them. It would be nice to think the Church was there for them but I can tell you lots of stories about priests who beat them away with a club.
11 years ago
On the other hand, Mexicans I know here in Texas who are practicing Catholics are the best ever. I have seen them turn out for Scripture studies and other adult education classes after a hard work day by the hundreds. There were few Anglos. I have seen them faithful beyond all telling, better than the Irish ever were. And there are more and more young Hispanic priests all over the place. They have a greater love for the Church these days than any other ethnic groups around, except maybe for the Vietnamese.
11 years ago
On the other hand, Mexicans who are practicing Catholics are the best ever. After a hard day's work they turn out in droves for evening Bible studies and no Anglos show up, for one example. Where I live, Corpus Christi, Texas, there is a growing number of young Mexican-American men entering the priesthood and they are excellent priests who make good pastors. They make me very hopeful for the future of the American Catholic Church. My Irish relatives have all abandoned the Church.


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