The Gift of Latino Catholics

My couple of weeks down here in San Antonio, Texas, at the Mexican American Catholic College, where I’m working on my primitive Spanish, has given me a renewed appreciation for the Latino culture in the United States.

I bristle when anyone asks me about the "Hispanic problem" in Catholic America. The vibrant presence of Latino Catholics in our Church is hardly a "problem"! It is a gift!

Our American Catholics from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean bring a vitality, a warmth, a promise to our wider Catholic community. We need them; we embrace them; we honor and respect them.

The strong Catholic faith of our Hispanic brothers and sisters is not a new phenomenon for us as Catholics in the United States. We Catholics of a more "anglo" background are really infants when compared to those of Spanish origin. We in the Archdiocese of New York are rightly proud of our 201 years as a diocese. But we’re still kids when you consider that the Catholic faith in Spanish America was already three centuries old when our first bishop was appointed! Last Sunday, I visited four mission churches here in San Antonio, each centuries older than our own "old" St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We look to our fellow Catholics from Puerto Rico and from countries such as Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba with admiration and reverence, as we gratefully recognize that the roots of their durable Catholic religion are centuries deeper than our own.

The welcome migration of Hispanic Catholics from other parts of the Americas to the United States reminds us as well that we still are an "immigrant church." Just as past generations of Catholics in our archdiocese embraced and helped settle our grandparents from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Central and Eastern Europe, so do we now continue that tradition and welcome immigrants who believe that the word "catholic" means "all are welcome" and that the invitation on the Statue of Liberty is indeed true. And, of course, this gift of immigrants today includes people, not just from Latin nations but also from Africa, Asia and still from Europe.

No wonder the Puerto Rican community rejoices with our own Justice Sonia Sotomayor. All of us in Catholic New York should. She studied hard at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School and Cardinal Spellman High School. Her dear mother sacrificed to send her there, and her own beautiful Catholic faith gave our new Supreme Court justice the character, values and morals she holds close.

The Catholic Church in the United States needs the company and contributions of our Latino co-religionists. There’s nothing dreary or stuffy about their faith. Their families are close, their babies nurtured, their celebrations of the sacraments dynamic. They know what the culture of life is all about. They can also help us recover a deep and tender love for our blessed Mother, Mary, a humble recognition of the need for the sacrament of penance, and a profound belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

Are there pastoral challenges we as a Church face in our outreach to our beloved Hispanic brothers and sisters? Of course! We need, for instance, more priests, sisters and brothers who can preach to them and minister to them in their own language.

Two, we must serve them in their needs, as they often lack adequate housing, food, health care, education and employment opportunities. The Church has always been an ally of, and advocate for, the newcomer in the United States—since we were all once there ourselves!—and we cannot fail our newly arrived neighbors now.

Three, we realistically admit that, while, thank God, Hispanic Catholics most often remain loyal to their faith, some are unfortunately also leaving the Church, especially attracted to sects of a more fundamentalist stripe. Our generous priests, sisters, brothers and lay pastoral leaders on the frontline of Hispanic ministry tell me that we can no longer sit back and wait for them to come find us; no, we must take the mandate of evangelization seriously and go find them to welcome them and show them that the Church which is in their blood, which animates their culture, is right up the block, eager to welcome them. At times the United States might seem confusing and strange to them; their Church should never be so.

We Catholics in the United States are at times tempted to look at our Church as an institution or a bureaucratic structure, or a distant, cold, voluntary organization. Our Latino Catholics who now join us look, rather, at the Church as a warm, inviting family, a home. They are right!

A reporter recently asked me, "Do you think that in 2050 the Catholic Church in the United States will be a Hispanic Church?"

"No," I replied. "I think it will be a more catholic church, as once again she has embraced and made-at-home yet another branch of her family."