FEBRUARY 2, 2004
Martin E. Marty
We at Sightings are often surprised by the responses we get. We read them all, but do not have the resources to write personal responses. We did not foresee the many reactions to last week's column on the violence of sundering conflicts in the churches. All that by way of leading in to this week's topic, which addresses an urgent theme in church and culture, but one that often fails to quicken response. That theme: Hispanics in the U. S. Catholic church.
Read the Catholic press, as we do and must, and you will find many stories on the Hispanic, especially Mexican-American, presence. What is evidently overlooked is the inability of the Church to attract and meet the needs of young Hispanics, which has cultural, social, and political consequences for non-Catholic and non-Hispanic America and Americans.
Jeff Guntzel in The National Catholic Reporter (January 30) describes such youth in "Between Two Cultures." He reports on the four main observable clusters in Instituto Fe Y Vida's classification system: "Immigrant Workers," "Identity Seekers," "Mainstream Movers," and "Gang Members." They require very different sorts of ministries and approaches. When things go wrong, they go wrong in four different ways generically, and in many more specifically. They can also go right, very right, but leadership is at a premium.
Guntzel, quoting the Instituto's research arm, offers statistics: 45 percent of all U.S. Catholics under age 30 are Hispanic. In Galveston-Houston's diocese, up to 75 percent are under 30. Who is contracted to work among them? English speakers. Don't look for simple villainy here: not enough Hispanic ministry has emerged. Ken Johnson-Mondragón, part of the research team, says, "We're telling people there is a problem, but we don't necessarily have the solution."
Guntzel tells happier stories, too. One has to do with Laura Henning, who coordinates youth ministry in the Boise, Idaho diocese, where almost 45 percent of the under-thirties are Hispanic. She is helping devise creative programs, and she and Boise are not alone, but they are outnumbered by dioceses that have not been able or understanding enough to come up with anything effective.
The language barrier is not the major issue; among young people, that is eventually overcome. Culture is the bigger stumbling-block to effective ministry and the creative gathering and sustaining of young people. The dioceses have reason to move fast, says Henning, since many Hispanic Catholics "are leaving to go to other faiths for lack of service." From what we read elsewhere, we know that these are often Pentecostal Protestants, who have zeal and savvy and the contacts that make them more mobile than Catholic leadership has been.
Since Catholics make up one-fourth of Americans, Hispanics are coming to be one-third of them, and youth are so predominant, Johnson-Mondragón's word is in place: "This isn't an issue that is going to go away. It's the future of the church. This is something that is going to be sweeping across the rest of the country." Sightings sees, and says: It has swept.
If there is so much to do in the green tree of Catholicism (given Mexico's history), there is much more work to be done in the drier trees of Protestantism and secular America.