Why Latino Catholics are key to the future of the church in the U.S.
One sign of hope for the Catholic Church's future has been the phenomenal growth and vibrancy of faith among young Latino Catholics.
Today, more than half of U.S. millennial Catholics—ages 14 to 34—are Hispanic as are two-thirds of Catholics under 35 who attend church regularly.
Catholic Extension has been helping mission dioceses foster the faith of young Hispanics through religious education, youth and young adult ministry and leadership development. For example, four years ago, Extension made it possible for the Diocese of Shreveport to hire Marcos Gonzalez Villalba as its first diocesan Hispanic youth and young adult coordinator.
Chicago-based Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization founded in 1905 to support the work and ministries of U.S. mission dioceses.
Villalba has been helping parishes reach out to young Latinos and provide groups for them. Now Hispanic youth are being included in diocesan-wide events, retreats, workshops and leadership camps.
Parishes and groups with Hispanics are beginning to flourish.
"The seeds that have been planted are starting to sprout," Villalba told Extension magazine. "More people in our Hispanic community are excited about their faith and share their love for God within their own culture."
According to Edgar Pardo, a leader in the young adult group Oasis at Christ the King Parish in Bossier City, Villalba is the "heartbeat of the young adult groups" and "has made a huge difference" in connecting the church with young Hispanics. Pardo said young Hispanics easily "fall by the wayside."
Villalba sees his own role as being one of the "gente puente," a bridge builder. "The church has built a bridge to them, so they can come across."
The youth and young adult groups have led to greater participation in Mass, with young Latinos taking on roles such as eucharistic ministers or choir members.
"They realize they have the potential to give back. That also reaches outside the walls of the church," he said, as "they now extend the arms of Christ to others" by helping elderly neighbors or disabled children.
One concrete result of the work with young Latinos has been that the Shreveport Diocese now has its first Hispanic seminarians.
Three years ago, Villalba's diocesan leadership team talked with some young Hispanic men and women about considering becoming a priest or religious. One of them eventually entered the seminary, and two others followed. Now the diocese has three Latino seminarians.
They come to youth retreats to share their story and inspire others to think about that path.
Villalba believes that getting involved in youth and young adult groups has helped many Hispanics "learn to be leaders among their peers, in their homes and at school."
"We help them develop their potential so that they know that they are special in God's eyes," said. "Here the church is their family and they know they are loved."