Ministering to Two Worlds

Mexican-American Catholicsby By Eduardo C. FernándezPaulist Press. 192p $18.95
This rich overview of Mexican-American Catholics by Eduardo C. Fernández, S.J., a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., is the latest in the Paulist Press “Pastoral Spirituality Series,” under the general editorship of the Rev. Peter C. Phan. Mexican-American Catholics provides readers with a vibrant account of the deep historical roots of people of Mexican origin in the United States along with an up-to-date analysis of the social and religious realities and issues faced by this unusually populous and youthful sector of U.S. Catholicism. Its two distinct features are: 1) the evocation of the Mexican-American cultural ethos in the form of well-chosen dichos (sayings) at the beginning of each chapter; and 2) the focus on Mexican-American spirituality, a matter that is often mentioned anecdotally in the literature but does not receive as thorough or creative an analysis as it does here. These features, together with the author’s lively style and down-to-earth language, imbue the work with a poignancy and charm that make it enjoyable to read. Given the fact that book-length treatments of Mexican-American Catholic pastoral reality are very rare indeed, this work ought to become a standard in seminaries, diocesan lay-formation programs and theology and religious studies departments throughout the country.

In seven chapters, Fernández develops key aspects of the Mexican-American context: origins, current circumstances, spirituality, distinctive feasts and customs, emerging theology, pastoral challenges and opportunities, and resources for learning more about Mexican-American Catholics.

Especially noteworthy is the author’s obvious experience of everyday pastoral realities. Fernández blends scholarly pursuits with personal experience by using contemporary pastoral/theological methodology. His calling as a practical theologian shines forth in the abundant references to practice and not just to theory. Chapter 6, devoted to pastoral challenges and opportunities, is particularly helpful. Using a simple format with questions, theme statements and select pastoral principles, Fernández covers a wide range of nitty-gritty issues that pastoral agents will find incisive and to the point. Every chapter reveals the author’s comfort with an inductive pastoral-theological method in the tradition of “see-judge-act,” a method effectively used by the Latin American bishops in their gatherings at Medellín, Puebla and, most recently, Aparecida.

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Fernández packs a huge amount of information into this relatively small volume. He neatly synthesizes history, social science and theology. And he provides a useful glossary that will be of great help to readers unfamiliar with Latin-American terminology. Chapters 1 and 2 provide the historical and social science background. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on spirituality and popular religion—what many experts contend is the very heart, the distinctive core of Mexican-American Catholicism. Fernández does an especially fine job of showing the linkage between spirituality and Mexican popular Catholicism. Of particular note is his review, in Chapter 5, of an emerging Hispanic contextual theology, a handy synthesis that reflects the author’s pioneering work in the field in his doctoral work and first book, La Cosecha: Harvesting Contemporary United States Hispanic Theology (1972-1998).

As already noted, Chapter 6 offers many practical suggestions concerning issues that often emerge regarding the pastoral care of Mexican-Americans. Chapter 7 lists a wide range of resources from several media—print, video, DVD and the Internet—that respond to needs and interests of pastoral agents in parish, religious education, liturgical, youth and campus and social justice ministries.

There are some critical issues that one would have hoped to find tackled in this book. One is the gradual emergence of a Mexican-American middle and entre-preneurial class. Linked to this is the development of new generations of Mexican-American youth. While Fernán-dez discusses several aspects of acculturation and integration, he does not discuss some recent findings by Dean Hoge and other researchers of U.S. Catholic youth that show that Hispanics are becoming mainstream, that is, losing their distinctiveness.

What does this portend for ministry? While Fernández mentions the dynamic character of Mexican-American ministry, the fact that it is a “moving target,” I would have liked to read more about this. Is the current interest in Hispanic ministry a passing phase? The current anti-immigrant climate, fueled by the fear of terrorism, has already led many Mexican immigrants to return to their homeland and dissuaded others from coming to the United States in the first place. How will this trend affect the current reality and future status of Mexican-Americans?

Another issue of some consequence is the relative paucity of Mexican-American vocations to the priesthood and religious life compared to the attraction of international priests and seminarians to ministry in the United States. Fernández discusses this matter briefly in Chapter 6. He laments the practice of bringing in these international ministers, calling it shortsighted. But he does not suggest what other options there might be, given the need for pastoral ministers. More information about the growing number of Mexican-American lay ecclesial ministers and the difference they make in the lives of parishes and other ministries would also shed light on new and hopeful pastoral realities.

Finally, Fernández neglects altogether the reality of the growing diversity among Hispanics themselves and what this may mean for Mexican-Americans. While Mexican-Americans will continue into the foreseeable future to constitute at least 65 percent of all Hispanics in the United States, there is a remarkable encounter going on between the dominant Mexican-American cohort and Hispanics from Central and South America and the Caribbean.

These observations, however, do not diminish my admiration for Fernández’s fine accomplishment. He has written a knowledgeable, balanced, well-researched and engaging study that sheds new light on a crucial concern of U.S. Catholicism today.

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