Church must walk with Hispanic youths, families to stay relevant, diocesan leaders say
DETROIT — There are an estimated 427,000 Hispanic Catholics in Michigan and Ohio, and every single one needs to be accompanied in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
How to achieve such a goal was the primary focus for priests, religious and lay leaders from 11 dioceses who met at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit on June 2-3 for the Region VI meeting of V Encuentro, a gathering of Church leaders to discuss how better to minister to the region’s Hispanic population.
Topics covered varied from the need to evangelize Hispanic neighborhoods and encourage more vocations, to making parishes more inclusive by encouraging Hispanic participation and speaking out for the rights of migrants.
At their root, each of the topics encompassed two key priorities: the importance of evangelizing youth and young adults, and accompanying Hispanic families who want to preserve their culture and faith in the United States.
“We (need to) reach out to our young adults, especially second- and third-generation Hispanics in our country who oftentimes don’t find the appropriate space within the confines of our community,” Cleveland Bishop Nelson Perez told The Michigan Catholic.Bishop Perez is the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs, which oversees the national Encuentro process. The regional meeting — one of 14 taking place across the country — followed Detroit’s archdiocesan meeting in December and precedes the national V Encuentro gathering Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas.
“From the work I’ve done with my group and speaking with my brother bishops, I definitely want to see the Church continue to deepen and intensify its engagement in the community,” Bishop Perez said. “I hope to see more parishes open up more ministries and reach out to Hispanic families.”
Proclaiming the Good News
Whether it’s getting more teenagers involved in youth groups or combating the trend of young Hispanic men joining gangs and turning to violence, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda said it is time for Hispanic Catholics in the United States to look past ever-present challenges and joyfully proclaim the good news in their communities.
“Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate (‘The Joy of the Gospel’) has invited us to precisely do that: stop complaining and go out and accompany your people,” Bishop Cepeda said. “Accompanying is about the invitation to go out to all men, women and children, if they are Christian or not, Catholic or not, and go out and walk with the people.”
During his talk at the gathering, Bishop Cepeda said many Hispanic families bemoan a shortage of Hispanic priests in the United States. However, when he asks parents whether their sons have considered the priesthood, they are quick to say it is not the vocation for their children.
“From my experience with Hispanic families in the United States, when they raise their children, most of them are relying on their children for subsistence, to have them be able to support the family with day-to-day bread on the table,” Bishop Cepeda said. “When it comes to considering the religious life, they find it difficult. Not that they don’t feel it would be a fulfilling life, but they feel they need to be together in order to survive.”
Bishop Cepeda said the way to increase vocations among the Hispanic community is by creating a Church that is “alive.”
“The Church is meant to be a field hospital, as Pope Francis says, where people heal and experience the presence and mercy of God,” Bishop Cepeda said. “A Church that celebrates is what turns people into joyful missionaries.”
Leticia Caro, a lay missionary with the Missionary Servants of the Word in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, said Hispanic youths often feel pressured by parents to concentrate on school and career advancement, which can eclipse their relationship with God.
“For most Hispanic youth, there is a tremendous focus on school,” Caro said. “They focus on success; that’s what their parents mainly come to the United States for, to have a better life. They prefer to have good grades rather than to get to know God.”
Caro and others with the Missionary Servants of the Word go door to door in the Columbus area, visiting Hispanic neighborhoods to talk about God and the Church.
“Missionaries should be happy, upbeat and be someone people can relate to,” Caro said. “We need to give the youths a chance to help in the Church; they need a job to do to make them feel like they belong.”
Going out to the peripheries
During the plenary sessions of the regional Encuentro representatives from the various work groups reported their parishes would like to see dioceses in Michigan and Ohio take greater steps in providing pastoral care for separated families and speak up for the rights of economically underprivileged Hispanic families.
Participants said many Hispanic Catholics feel disenfranchised from society at large, including their parishes, and it is up to pastors and pastoral teams to meet Hispanic Catholics where they are.
“Hispanic Catholics are trying to get by the best they can, but if they don’t feel welcome or don’t understand the Mass or the parish events at an English-speaking parish, they don’t go,” said Fr. Timothy Nelson, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Jackson, Mich.
Fr. Nelson is also pastor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Hispanic Community in Jackson, and was tasked by Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea to lead the diocesan delegation in the Encuentro process.
“If parents aren’t going to Mass, the kids don’t go; it’s as simple as that,” Fr. Nelson said. “Then we are missing an entire generation. It’s the Hispanic population who’s having the kids. If we forsake that whole generation, we as a Church in the U.S. will suffer.”
Fr. Nelson said it’s up to pastors to make sure Hispanics are included in the daily life of the parish, from celebrating Masses in Spanish and taking up devotions that are dear to Hispanics, to ensuring Hispanics are represented on parish councils and committees.
In the Diocese of Lansing, and other rural dioceses throughout Michigan and Ohio, reaching out to the Hispanic community means more than just a welcoming face at the door.
“One thing I did in reaching out to migrants was to go to where they are, rather than expecting them to come where I am,” Fr. Nelson said. “I learned there was a large soccer tournament every Sunday on the grounds of a dairy farm in the northern part of the Lansing diocese. So I went there, asked the supervisor if they’d be interested in a Spanish Mass before the games, and he said it was a great idea. So every Sunday, we celebrated a Mass before the games, to show people who aren’t registered at a parish that there is a priest available, that the Church is reaching out to them.”
Building cultural competency
Among the 10 areas of focus during the discussion groups at the regional Encuentro intercultural competency was a significant talking point — asking dioceses to encourage priests and lay leaders to learn more about and provide space for Hispanic devotions and traditions.
Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon, who has been involved in Hispanic ministry for 32 years, including as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Monroe and St. Gabriel and Holy Redeemer parishes in Detroit, said the Archdiocese of Detroit has been a trailblazer in promoting lay Hispanic leadership.
“We have a whole group of lay folks who are being trained or have been trained to do the work,” Bishop Hanchon said. “We have the San Andres School of Evangelization’s local director give talks and train people, and that has prepared several hundred people who are really on fire for the Gospel.”
Demographics also play a role in Detroit being seen as a leader in Hispanic ministry in the region, Bishop Hanchon said.
“We have a lot of answers in Detroit, simply because of our size and where we are,” Bishop Hanchon said. “If we could share this on an ongoing basis with the other dioceses in the region, make these talking points our priority for the next five years, you will see a lot of energy in the local Hispanic church and you will see dioceses on fire for the Gospel.”
One topic that particularly interested Bishop Hanchon was working with seminary leaders in incorporating Hispanic cultural competency for all seminarians.
“I would like to see more awareness of Hispanic culture as a priority in the seminary,” Bishop Hanchon said. “Here in Detroit, it both is and isn’t. I want the rector of the seminary and the faculty to really hear what the representatives are saying, (to see) if we can arrange more contact between the seminaries and the Hispanic parishes. Maybe (today’s seminarians) will end up at a parish with a strong Hispanic presence, and maybe not. But it’s critical they are at least sympathetic to the needs of Hispanic families.”
In order for the Catholic Church to play an active role in the lives of Hispanic families, parish and diocesan leaders must develop sympathy and intentionality, said Veronica Rodriguez, director of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Kalamazoo and co-chair for Region VI in the Encuentro process.
“What I’ve been hearing for these two days from leaders all over the region is their needs to be a focus on the youth and on the family,” Rodriguez said. “That relates to everything else that is also a ministerial area: immigration, leadership development, stewardship, all the other areas.”
Rodriguez said the good news is the Church isn’t starting from scratch when it comes to ministering to Hispanic Catholics; Catholicism has been part of Hispanic-American culture for almost 500 years.
“Parishes and dioceses are already reaching out to Hispanics, but maybe not enough to the kids, young adults or young families who are looking to come back to the Church,” Rodriguez said. “We need to be more intentional with forming our parish youth ministries around Hispanic youths.”
Intentionality doesn’t necessarily mean having ministers who speak the language, Rodriguez and other leaders said, since second- and third-generation Hispanic-Americans largely speak English, but recognizing Hispanic diversity in culture and devotions is critical.
“Even in Hispanic ministry, you don’t have to speak Spanish, but you do need to understand the culture and integrate it into your programs,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe you can speak a little Spanish, but have the program in English, but the key is you have to relevant to the Latino youths in your parish.”
After the formal sessions of the Encuentro concluded, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron celebrated Mass with participants in the seminary’s chapel.
After two days of prayer, discussion and celebration, Rodriguez said it was critical for the representatives to go back to their home dioceses and share what they learned with those in the pews.
“The question now is how do we keep this enthusiasm going? Right now we have a spark,” Rodriguez said. “We need to go back to those families we first visited when the Encuentro process started and say, ‘This is what you told me; this is what we talked about. How far have we come?’
“It is a back-and-forth conversation between the Church and the people. That is accompaniment, and that is what we are called to do: to be intentional and specific about sharing the Gospel and motivating our youth and families to take a leading role in our Church.”