Latinos in U. S. Catholicism Timothy Matovina

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Latinos in U.S. Catholicism

Timothy Matovina

Immigrant clergy can border on the hagiographic when they exalt the influence of Catholicism in their native land. One priest lauded his compatriots’ “simple yet strong piety and trust in God,” the influence of a Catholic ethos in everyday life, and the “deep religious feeling [and] love for the Madonna” which “alone would be proof of the strength of their religion.” His depiction elicited a two-month dispute in the pages of the national Catholic weekly America. The first respondent retorted that “piety does not consist in processions or carrying lighted candles, in prostrations before a statue of the Madonna, in processions in honor of the patron saints of villages.” Others characterized immigrants as ignorant of their Catholic faith, infrequent in church attendance, and unwilling to offer financial or other support to parishes. For these reasons critics deemed the émigrés “easy victim[s] to the Protestant proselytizer.” Immigrant defenders questioned the legitimacy of such claims. They opined that immigrants’ practice of their faith was remarkable when one considered that most of them were poor workers struggling for their very survival who had endured the ordeal of migrating from their homelands to blighted neighborhoods in U.S. cities, where they found relatively few priests prepared to serve them in their native tongue. Several pointed out the enthusiastic immigrant response to pastoral outreach efforts. Some considered the real issue to be the hostility the immigrants so frequently meet in the United States, even from members of their own church.1

The short statement with which the editors of America closed this controversy sided with the critics: “When all has been said and due discount has been made for the insufficiency of the data offered as the basis of a judgment, the conviction, we think, will cling to most readers’ minds that there is an Italian problem, and that it clamors for solution. . .” The year was 1914, three decades after debate about the “Italian problem” surfaced among U.S. Catholic bishops at their 1884 Plenary Council in Baltimore. Pope Leo XIII even weighed in on the situation in an 1888 letter urging the U.S. bishops to provide his immigrant compatriots “the saving care of ministers of God familiar with the Italian language.”2

Accusations and rebuttals regarding the Italian immigrants of yesteryear are strikingly parallel to perceptions of today’s Latino3 Catholics. Indeed, the protracted debate about Italians reveals a central and longstanding feature of U.S. Catholicism: the varied attempts to incorporate diverse groups into a unified body of faith. Gerald Shaughnessy’s celebrated 1925 book, Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith?, expressed the core concerns and fears of numerous priests and prelates in this regard. Was the Catholic Church losing millions of adherents in the process of immigrant integration into the United States? Should pastoral leaders actively foster integration as many Irish bishops advised, or promote linguistic and cultural retention in order to fortify the émigrés’ Catholic loyalties, as German immigrant leaders frequently exhorted? What are the best pastoral strategies to nourish Catholic faith during the process of integration, and what happens to the Catholic affiliation of the U.S.-born generations who descend from the immigrants? The 2008 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey showed that fully ten percent of all U.S. residents were raised as Catholics but no longer describe themselves as Catholic, a loss of one third of the Catholic faithful between childhood and adulthood. These findings renewed alarms that, while Catholicism remains the largest denomination in the United States, the next largest religious bodies are Baptists and former Catholics.4

Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is the most ethnically and racially diverse national ecclesial body in the world. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone, the Eucharist is regularly celebrated in 42 languages. A century ago, the U.S. Catholic Church was an overwhelmingly immigrant church of Europeans. Now, the church, largely run by middle-class Catholics, descendants of those immigrants, has growing numbers of Latino, Asian, and African immigrants, along with sizeable contingents of U.S.-born Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and some Native Americans. Unlike European émigrés from the great century of migration between 1820 and 1920, today’s newcomers are immigrants in a middle-class church. Their class and educational differences with many descendants of previous immigrant groups expand the diversity within U.S. Catholicism. The challenge of forging unity among such a diverse ecclesial body is more acute than ever.

Of course, not all Hispanics are newcomers to the United States. In fact, Hispanic Catholics have lived in what is now the United States for twice as long as the nation has existed. Subjects of the Spanish crown founded the first diocese in the “New World” at San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1513 and, at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, the first permanent European settlement within the current borders of the continental United States. Though for much of U.S. Catholic history Hispanics have constituted a relatively small and frequently overlooked group, since World War II their numbers and influence have increased dramatically. No ethnic or racial group has ever been as proportionally large in U.S. Catholicism as Latinos are now, some forty percent of Catholics according to estimates from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.5

Newcomers from such varied locales as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina, along with ongoing Mexican immigration, have increased the complexity of the Hispanic population. Latino Catholic communities, previously concentrated in New York, the Southwest, and some Midwestern cities, now extend from Seattle to Boston, from Miami to Alaska. Expanding diversity of region and generation of settlement within the United States, national origins or heritage, and socioeconomic status defy simple generalizations about Latinos, though representatives of these various groups frequently employ the umbrella terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to reflect and promote perceptions of a common heritage and a common struggle adapting to life in the United States. Extant studies on specific groups and regions are more prevalent for the three largest populations – ethnic Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans – but much further research remains to be done. Thus this chapter is necessarily a composite overview of Latinos, though specific groups are identified in instances where information about them is known and pertinent to the point under discussion.

Contemporary U.S. bishops have not spoken of a Hispanic “problem” but have gone on record as seeing Latinos as “a blessing from God.”6 Yet, like the discussants of Italians in America a century ago, Catholic bishops and other pastoral leaders are deeply concerned about the dynamics of integration, the influence of Protestantism, and Latino participation in civic life. What do current trends in these three core areas portend for the future of U.S. Catholicism, particularly the capacity for mobilizing collective Catholic action in American public life?

The National Parish Dynamic and Integration

The Italian experience is a good starting point for an analysis of Latino integration. Silvano Tomasi’s landmark study identified three stages in the development of New York’s Italian parishes from 1880 to 1950, the peak years of Italian immigration and adjustment to life in New York. The initial stage consisted of attempts to incorporate immigrants into existing structures, usually into predominantly Irish parishes. These “duplex parishes” were attempts to economize by avoiding the construction of multiple parishes in the same neighborhood. But this plan failed because of language problems, the perceived economic strain that poor immigrants put on existing congregations, the precedent of national or “ethnic” parishes among German Catholics, Italian resentment of Irish control of the U.S. hierarchy, the complaints of Italian clergy against the plan, and the prejudice that Italians felt from other Catholics, often symbolized by their relegation to worshiping in the basement of existing parishes. Many church leaders also feared the loss of Italians to Protestant denominations. Thus they supported the formation of Italian parishes where the immigrants could find a home within their own church.7

The failure of the “duplex parish” led to the second stage of Italian parish development, the creation of Italian national parishes. These parishes were often the first institutions that Italian immigrants could call their own. Tomasi claims that the Italian national parish had the character of a “quasi-sect,” since “it became the place where immigrant Italians who were on the religious and social periphery of society, could fulfill their religious needs, find opportunity for self-expression, [and] preserve their self-perception of being human in the face of an unknown social environment.”8 As quasi-sects, the intended purpose of Italian parishes was to preserve immigrant faith and their “sacred cosmos,” a combination of saints, devotions, sacred things, and view of the world that informs the rest of life. The parishes strengthened the internal structure of Italian communities in that they preserved symbols and other carriers of immigrant culture, facilitated their adjustment to U.S. society, and provided an arena for the emergence of Italian leadership.

In time, Italian national parishes gave way to interethnic, territorial parishes in which the children and grandchildren of immigrants integrated into the “middle American” milieu with Catholics of other backgrounds. Among the conditions facilitating this change was the loss of the Italian language among the descendants of émigrés, declining immigration resulting from fluctuations in the job market and restrictive immigration legislation, and the mobility of immigrants’ descendants as they made advances in education and employment. But Tomasi contends that the role of the national parish was also significant in the integration of Italians into more heterogeneous parishes and into the wider society, since national parishes allowed immigrants a period of adjustment with the support of an institution that was familiar. In Tomasi’s words, while facilitating the ongoing Catholic allegiance of immigrants and their descendants, the national parish simultaneously mediated the process of “integration through separation.”9 Tomasi’s widely-accepted thesis unveils no small irony: while Italians and other immigrant groups labored to found national parishes as enclaves to preserve their language, culture, and ethnic expressions of faith in a strange new land, over time these segregated congregations enabled their descendants to integrate into U.S. society and ecclesial life from a position of strength. National parishes built unity by enabling newcomers to integrate in their own time and, to an extent, on their own terms rather than those of their established predecessors.

Shortly after becoming archbishop of New York in 1939, Cardinal Francis Spellman reversed a policy of establishing national parishes that had shaped New York Catholicism for nearly a century. Extolling “integration” as the goal of Catholic ministry among migrants, he contended that national parishes were no longer a viable pastoral strategy because the third generation of an immigrant group frequently moves out of these parishes, leaving the congregation depleted and the church building in disrepair. Furthermore, the children of immigrants too often abandon their ancestral religion because they identify the Catholic faith with the archaic practices of their national parish community. The approach Spellman adopted in New York became common across the United States, as Catholic leaders concluded that, “since the people will eventually become integrated with the established population, it would be wiser to begin the process of integration from the very beginning.”10

The significance of Catholic parishes for newcomers was not lost on Latino groups like the Puerto Rican migrants whose numbers increased dramatically in New York after World War II, just as Italian immigrant parishes were in the midst of losing members to more heterogeneous, suburban parishes. Encarnación Padilla de Armas arrived in the city in 1945 as a young widow with a small boy and $150 in her pocket. Subsequently she met Jesuit priest Joseph Fitzpatrick, with whom she shared her concern that the New York Archdiocese was neglecting the Puerto Rican community. Fitzpatrick asked her to write a report on the situation and promised that he would deliver it personally to Cardinal Spellman. Padilla de Armas gathered and led a small group of Puerto Rican women to prepare this 1951 report which bemoaned that there was “not a single Catholic priest of Puerto Rican origin” serving in New York. They also asserted unequivocally that “Puerto Ricans must be received as regular parishioners” in existing Catholic parishes and that established congregants must be taught “their obligation of receiving these new people as brothers in Christ.”11

The developments in Hispanic ministry that Padilla de Armas and her companions helped initiate in New York clearly illuminate what could be deemed the “national parish dynamic.” Like European immigrants who built national parishes, Latinos attempt to establish and nurture structures of Catholic life that enable them to move from at best feeling hospitality in someone else’s church to a sense of homecoming in a church that is their own. Archdiocesan officials established the Spanish Catholic Action Office two years after the Puerto Rican women produced their report. Consciously or not, the women’s efforts revealed the Puerto Rican response to the official decline of the national parish was to replace it with structures that met their desire to feel the sense of belonging national parishes provided.

This desire was evident in other ways. During the 1950s Puerto Ricans numbering in the tens of thousands celebrated the island’s patron St. John the Baptist (June 24) with an annual archdiocesan Mass, procession, and daylong festivities that included a civic and cultural program of events. This vibrant celebration “offered an opportunity for a public demonstration of the religious and cultural values of the Puerto Rican community. . .It was the first citywide event that gave presence to the Puerto Ricans.” The renewal movement Cursillo de Cristiandad (Brief Course in Christianity) weekends began on a regular basis in the New York Archdiocese in 1960. They were immensely popular and influential among Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, in large part because they “provided a framework and community to the individual Hispanic immigrant otherwise submerged in New York’s dominant non-Hispanic culture and in danger of losing his identity as Hispanic and Catholic.” Similarly, though U.S. clergy promoted the Caballeros de San Juan Bautista (Knights of St. John the Baptist) as a temporary Puerto Rican pious association that would foster “integration” and “assimilation,” many Puerto Ricans saw the Caballeros as on organization that would help them maintain their religious practices, ethnic identity, and group cohesion on the mainland.12

Today the diminishing number of priests and an expanding Catholic population has augmented the average size and racial and ethnic diversity of U.S. Catholic congregations. Particularly outside of areas with more concentrated Latino populations like the Southwest, Florida, New York, and Chicago, an increasing scenario in parishes encompassing Latinos is that they are relative newcomers in established Euro-American congregations. A number of English-speaking Catholics have made considerable efforts to work with their Latino coreligionists and offer them a sense of welcome. In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, women religious, clergy, and lay leaders at all levels of the church have invested significant amounts of time and material resources to help develop and expand ministries with Latino Catholics.

When a parish entails two or more language groups worshiping under the same roof, however, in many instances they coexist in isolation or even in tension. The sheer number of Latinos and the fact that they are in a middle-class rather than an immigrant-led church can exacerbate the situation. For example, when Hispanics attempt to make a parish feel more like home by placing one of their own sacred images in the worship space or scheduling a Spanish Mass in a “prime time” slot on Sunday morning, established parishioners frequently rebuff them with the claim that “our ancestors built this church” or “we were here first.” As one lay leader bemoaned, “I am discouraged by the fact that we, Hispanics, don’t count here in this parish. We come to mass in great numbers and our Masses are really filled with the spirit. But all the power is in the hands of a small group of [non-Hispanic] old-timers who contribute a lot of money to the Church.” If Latinos respond with protest or complaint, their Euro-American co-religionists often perceive them as being unappreciative of the welcome offered to them. Like their non-Catholic neighbors, many European-descent U.S. Catholics presume that newcomers who do not adopt U.S. customs and speak English in public are ungrateful or even not qualified to remain in the United States. Critics also claim the practice of distinct language Masses creates “parallel parishes” that have virtually no relationship with one another, leading to fragmentation within the body of Christ. Leaders in Hispanic ministry like Father Chuck Dahm counter that “the promotion of multicultural parishes is often little more than a veiled attempt to assimilate the minority culture into the dominant one.”13

As it did with Italian and other European immigrant groups, perceived second-class status in multicultural parishes leads some Latinos to curtail or abandon their participation in parish life. For others inhospitality fuels the national parish dynamic, as Father Ezéquiel Sánchez, former Chicago archdiocesan director of Hispanic ministry, noted about one congregation: “A lot of people are not very welcoming toward Hispanics, and, consequently, Mission Juan Diego ends up being an island of refuge for them. It’s their own place.”14 Many territorial parishes are in effect national parishes as they serve overwhelmingly Hispanic congregations. The impulse to found and support such parishes is evident among all Latino groups: the predominantly Puerto Rican parish of Santa Agonía (Holy Agony) in New York, the Cuban and later also Central American parishioners of St. John Bosco in Miami, the largely Mexican immigrant congregation of St. Pius V in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the predominantly Mexican American community of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, and the multiethnic Latino immigrant community of Our Lady of the Angels, or la Placita, as it is commonly known, in Los Angeles, to name but a few. Congregations like these engage parishioners at multiple levels, providing social services and sacraments, English classes and traditional devotions, religious education and legal aid, parenting classes and prayer groups. Widespread Latino initiatives to establish and support such parishes, as well as feast-day celebrations, devotional practices, renewal movements, parish organizations, and diocesan and regional Hispanic ministry offices reflect Latinos’ desire to stake out their own turf within U.S. Catholicism, just as Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians, and others did previously in their national parishes.

The 2007 Pew Latino religion survey confirms the ongoing influence of the national parish dynamic. Seventy percent of Latino Catholics reported worshiping in predominantly Latino congregations with services in Spanish and at least one Hispanic serving as clergy. Foreign birth and residence in an area densely populated with Latinos increase these percentages, but do not account exclusively for the phenomenon of Latino ethnic parishes. For example, 57 percent of respondents who live in an area where the population is less than 15 percent Latino report worshiping in a predominantly Latino congregation.15

Various factors bode well for a more prolonged vitality of the national parish dynamic among Latinos than among Italian and other previous European émigrés. Despite efforts to restrict Hispanic immigration and the growth of Protestantism in Latin America, family unification and the flow of people in a global economy continue to attract numerous Latino Catholics to the United States. Contact with their countries of origin and other countries where Spanish is spoken is more frequent for today’s Hispanics than for immigrants who crossed the ocean, particularly in the Southwest where proximity with Mexico can literally be as close as several hundred yards. Puerto Ricans have the unique distinction of being “citizen immigrants,” U.S. citizens by birth who travel freely between the island of Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Spanish television programs, the internet, and improved transportation add to the trend of greater contact with one’s homeland and the larger Hispanic world. With good reasons scholars of Latinos in the Americas today speak more of transnational migration – underscoring the frequent contact and back-and-forth travel among families and kinship networks that span national boundaries – rather than the more unidirectional concept of immigration. The large numbers of Latino émigrés and their frequent settlement pattern in ethnic clusters further serve to reinforce their retention of the Spanish language and elements of their respective cultures.

Latinos also encounter a greater openness to multicultural differences among many church and societal leaders than did earlier European immigrants, buttressing their efforts to retain their Hispanic heritage even as they adapt to life in the United States. At the same time, the issue of racism remains. Numerous Latinos have stinging memories of the polite disdain or outright hostility they meet in their dealings with sales clerks, bosses, coworkers, teachers, police officers, health care providers, social workers, government employees, professional colleagues, and civic and church leaders. They are not alone in the experience of discrimination, of course. Almost every immigrant group had to endure prejudice upon arriving in the United States. With Latinos and other groups (most notably African Americans) from outside of Europe, there is frequently a critical difference, however: skin color. While white European immigrants could blend into U.S. society once they knew the language and culture, the ethnic origin of many Hispanics remains readily apparent. Subtle (and not so subtle) racist treatment can be the result. Continuing experiences of prejudice lead Latinos to band together for mutual support and to oppose wholesale assimilation into a society perceived as unappreciative of the Hispanic presence.

Moreover, as Joseph Fitzpatrick has argued, unlike Europeans who arrived to the “immigrant church” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more recent Hispanic newcomers encounter a U.S. Catholic Church that is “now a middle-class institution.” Difference of social class between numerous Latinos and the descendants of European immigrants who occupy the majority of leadership position in parishes and dioceses further inhibit working-class Latinos from developing a “consciousness that this is their church” apart from the national parish dynamic.16 Unlike numerous European-descent Catholics for whom integration and assimilation occurred en masse in the wake of the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s, ethnic consciousness among Latinos will be a persistent feature of U.S. Catholicism for the foreseeable future.

But this is not the full story. Historian Rudolph Vecoli eloquently echoed the sentiments of millions of immigrant Catholics when he concluded that “the ‘Italian Problem’ was many things to many people, but to the Italian immigrants themselves it may have been that the Church in the United States was more American and Irish than Catholic.” Yet Italian immigrants did in time identify as Italian Americans and many of them eventually simply as Americans. Similarly, the demographics of generational transition are changing the face of Latino and U.S. Catholicism. The majority of Latinos – some 60%, according to the 2000 census – are not immigrants. A 2003 study revealed that while 60% of Hispanics above age 35 are immigrants, only 13% of those below age 20 are. The study also showed the linguistic impact of U.S. birth and residence: among Latino Catholics of high school age, 15% primarily speak Spanish, 60% are bilingual, and 25% speak English with little or no Spanish. While more than half of Latino adults speak exclusively or primarily Spanish in their home, two thirds of Latino teens speak exclusively or primarily English among their friends.17 These statistics and the pleas from Latino leaders for greater initiatives in ministry among U.S.-born Latino youth, a need clearly articulated in the June 2006 gathering of more than 2,000 Latino youth for the First National Encounter for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry, are just some of the indicators that an analysis of Latino Catholicism that solely emphasizes immigrants and ethnic solidarity is woefully inadequate.

The influence that living in the United States has on Latinos is crucial for the future of U.S. Catholicism. As David Rieff asked in a recent New York Times Magazine essay: “Is this [the growing Latino presence] a real turning point in the history of the American church that will lead to its enduring revival or, instead, only another cycle in that history?” Will the national parish dynamic lead to the process of “integration through separation” as national parishes did for Italians and other European immigrants? And as more Latinas and Latinos have children and grandchildren in the United States will their former immigrant Catholicism remain strong, or will they follow the trajectory of the descendants of European immigrants whose Catholic faith Rieff claims “eroded in the aftermath of Vatican II and assimilation”?18

Despite his hyperbolic claim that the faith of all European-descent Catholics has eroded, Rieff justifiably poses this question in stark terms. The degree of contact with non-Hispanics, distance from one’s homeland, education level, U.S. or foreign birth, and immigrants’ age at the time of their arrival are just some of factors that shape an individual Latino’s adaptation to U.S. church and society. Regional influence on the acculturation of Latinos has become even more pronounced in recent decades, as the dispersion of the Latino population across the United States means that more of them live in areas where they comprise a numerical minority and consequently tend to interact more frequently with non-Hispanics. Church leaders and Latino Catholic parents face the same challenge of passing on the faith that European immigrants did in the past, especially as young Latinos advance in education, economic status, and English-language ability.

The national parish dynamic among Latinos reflects an enduring pattern in U.S. Catholicism: rarely do newcomers readily accept forced integration but, consciously or not, when given the freedom to do so they often integrate from a position of strength. Current debates about whether multicultural congregations are segregated, “parallel parishes” or a means to live out the richness of unity in diversity mirror previous arguments about national parishes and the pastoral response to European immigrants. From the perspective of newcomers ranging from nineteenth-century Germans to today’s Hispanics, the fundamental issue in such disputes is moving beyond mandated assimilation to voluntary integration, beyond an established “host” group controlling parish life to a sense of mutual belonging, beyond receiving hospitality in someone else’s parish to a homecoming in one’s own church. Theologically, Latinos’ considerable ecclesial activism over the past half century echoes the same core conviction of millions of other newcomers throughout the long saga of U.S. Catholicism: God’s house is not holy just because all are welcome; God’s house is holy because all belong as valued members of the household. The incorporation of Latinos is yet another major step in the long process to forge a viable, harmonious Catholic community in a pluralistic church and society.

Yet there remains one further crucial difference: while Latinos evidence both the national parish dynamic and similarities to the integration and assimilation patterns of their European co-religionists, among Latinos both dynamics are taking place concurrently over a more extended period of time. No previous group in U.S. Catholicism has ever encompassed such large numbers of both immigrants and more assimilated populations as do Latinos. A 2000 national poll confirmed that Latinos of all groups value both their ethnic heritage and their life in the United States: while 89 percent of Latinos surveyed agreed it is important “for Latinos to maintain their distinct cultures,” 84 percent of the same group also said it is important “for Latinos to change so that they blend into the larger society as in the idea of the melting pot.”19 The simultaneity of ethnic solidarity and ongoing immigration along with generational transition into U.S. church and society is one of the most significant trends within an expanding Latino population that encompasses immigrants and their descendants, Spanish- and English-speakers, newcomers and longstanding residents. Unilateral pastoral approaches are inadequate in this context, both those that solely emphasize rapid assimilation and exclusive English-language use and those that promote prolonged ethnic separatism and monolingual Spanish ministries. Future Catholic impact within U.S. society hinges in no small part on the degree to which Latinos feel a sense of ownership and belonging in U.S. Catholicism and achieve a spirit of unity with their co-religionists in parochial life.

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