WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. –– In September, Latino Catholics from the Smoky Mountain towns of western North Carolina will descend on downtown Charlotte for a eucharistic procession of Catholic associations, ethnic traditions, Marian statues and prayer.
People walk outside San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission in Carmel, Calif., May 17. As the U.S. Latino Catholic population grows, shared parishes offer Hispanics the best change to influence the church. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)There, on Sept. 12, the Smoky Mountain delegation will join thousands of other Catholics from North Carolina and South Carolina walking a morning pilgrimage to the Charlotte Convention Center for the diocese’s Eucharistic Congress.
The 11th annual event draws strong participation — an estimated 50 percent of the 13,000 registrants — from the burgeoning Catholic Hispanic population of the Carolinas.
Many are Mexican-Americans who work in the construction and service trades, illustrating the presence of an estimated 15,000 Catholic Hispanics living in border region of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Diocesan Hispanic ministry officials said Latino Catholics in the region have cultivated a kind of seamless lifelong approach to Catholic formation, encompassing youth, young adults, married couples, charismatic groups and the wider community working together in a multigenerational catechesis. That approach will be on display at the congress and is becoming more evident overall, said Carlos Castaneda, a Hispanic ministry coordinator for the Charlotte Diocese.
“They have been working five to seven years in the Smoky Mountains on that idea of bringing the whole family together. In this family endeavor, there is no need to isolate different groups. We can come together, interact and meet together,” Castaneda said.
“The figure of Pope Francis has also helped us to get out the message of love, to come together and enjoy life.”
As it happens, many of the same Smoky Mountain Latino families have another appointment just two weeks after the congress: with Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Arriving by bus, they will join an estimated 300 Hispanic families from the wider Atlanta Province at the Vatican-sponsored gathering.
“Our idea was to say, ‘Let’s go to Philadelphia as part of our encuentro process,” said Castaneda, a film production specialist who will serve as a language translator and media volunteer in the three cities Pope Francis visits: Philadelphia, New York and Washington.
The encuentro is a national five-year process of reflection and evangelization for Hispanic pastoral leaders, with the goal of engaging 1 million Latino Catholics and identifying a new generation of leadership.
Castaneda also served as a volunteer at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, where he learned that the value of a papal event is what follows.
“That is something I learned through social media initiatives initially. It is not precisely what the pope says or does, but what happens afterwards,” he explained. “I think having (Philadelphia) as part of our encuentro process is very wise. It is not finishing with the pope and saying, ‘Let’s go home.'”
The presence of Latinos in Philadelphia and to the six-day papal visit overall will serve as a reminder of where the U.S. Catholic population is growing — not in the corridors of political power or business along the Eastern seaboard, not in the Midwestern rust belt, but in great swaths of southern and western states.
The U.S. Census and other demographic data show:
— In 2020, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics will be about even with non-Hispanic white Catholics in the U.S.
— Hispanics represent 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic population growth since the 1960s.
— About two-thirds of school-age Catholic children in the U.S. are Latino.
— Some 4,500 U.S. parishes have a form of Hispanic ministry mostly oriented to immigrants.
The numbers reveal a “tale of two churches shaping the priorities and decisions about evangelization in our day,” said Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, who has researched and written several books on Catholic Hispanic populations in the context of parishes and Catholic schools.
“The present and future of Catholicism in the U.S. is being shaped by important dynamics in these two parts of the country — the South and the West,” he said. The church is somewhat out of sync nationally in terms of resource development and priorities because of a “vast diversity of experiences in the different regions where Catholicism has grown roots,” he explained.
Ospino noted that parishes historically have been the best structures to channel a response to evangelization, including Hispanic ministry, yet 61 percent of U.S. parishes remain clustered in traditional Catholic centers of the Northeast and Midwest while the South and West most need additional churches, schools and universities.
“At some point, we need to start developing networks of solidarity that allow us to bring some of the great resources of the Northeast and Midwest to bear upon the efforts of evangelization in the rest of the country,” he said.
For Latino Catholics, another mismatch of resources-to-needs exists in Catholic education, which is considered crucial for handing on the faith and religious traditions as well as providing the best opportunities for the next generation of Catholics.
Ospino, who spearheaded a study on Catholic schools and Hispanic families to be released in October, noted that as the numbers of Hispanic Catholic children skyrocketed, hundreds of Catholic elementary schools were closing or merging. There are 12 million school-age Hispanic children in the U.S.
“Our schools today are only serving less than 3 percent of the school-age Hispanic population that they could be serving,” he said. “Compare this to 70 years ago when more than half of Catholic children attended (Catholic) schools.”
He suggested that the U.S. Catholic Church work to ensure that Hispanics comprise 50 percent of Catholic school enrollment.
Overall, the number of U.S. parishes serving both Anglo and Hispanic Catholics in some capacity has almost doubled since the 1980s — nearly 5,000 parishes. As the Hispanic population has grown, more pastoral leaders have developed intercultural competencies to serve multicultural memberships, Ospino said. The same can be said for seminaries, he added.
Unlike some past U.S. immigrants, Latino Catholics are less likely to form communities around ethnic or nationality parishes that are familiar to Irish, German or Polish communities, and are instead forming “shared parish” communities with sacraments celebrated in various languages.
Such arrangements bring people into a “community of communities that intersect,” said Maria del Mar Munoz-Visoso, executive director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
She also noted that not all Hispanics are immigrants.
“The wide majority of the Latino population in the United States, 60 percent, are native born and many of them no long Spanish-speaking or even bilingual,” Munoz told a gathering in Florida earlier this year. “Sometimes we need to change our assumptions.”