April 2015 Evangelization Exchange – Constanza

Becoming an Inviting Church

This series presents directions to stimulate the thinking of pastoral leaders, helping them focus on the important ministry of inviting. Parishes may, to a greater or lesser extent, greet and welcome. But few parishes consciously invite – and this at a time when participation in church is falling across all the religious spectrum.

Part 6 – Inviting Latinos

By Fr. René Constanza, C.S.P.

Father René is a Paulist Father and associate pastor at St. Austin’s parish in the Diocese of Austin, Texas. Father René was born in Belize and is the 7th of 9 children. He received his Masters of Divinity with a concentration on Hispanic Ministry from the Catholic University of America and was ordained a priest in 2012. Father René has a passion for evangelization, Hispanic ministry and ecumenism.

Easter is a time for familia and fiesta to celebrate the new life given to us by our Lord’s Resurrection. Our family’s merriment at our very large Easter family gatherings, despite its chaotic nature at times, was our way of being thankful for God’s gift of salvation. Fiestas were our expression of renewing trust in each other and creating a space of mutuality that allowed us to celebrate, question, and reflect as a community of believers. Much of the time, our reflection led us to an awareness of those less fortunate, of those in the margins, of those who are unable to partake in fiestas as we did.

Whenever we have familia, we have thanksgiving, and whenever there is thanksgiving, there should always be room for the guests. I grew up reminded of this important aspect of life by my parents. So when a stranger stopped by our gatherings unannounced or when one of us nine siblings brought friends over to our family gatherings, mami would ensure that we extended the highest form of hospitality to guests. This would mean offering our seats at the gathering, or turning a meal for 30 into a meal for 35 or even 40. Being thankful to the God that gave us new life and gathered us as a family helped us to learn at an early age that fiestas are only real fiestas when there is hospitality, sharing of resources, and a true sense of community; where everyone partakes in the fiesta – from the crying toddlers to the elderly, from our teenagers to the adults in the family. Because time for us is measured by the quality of time and not the quantity of time spent together, fiestas usually had no end time.

This brief reflection on the meaning and values espoused by a Latino family fiesta can help us in our analysis of practical ways in which our Catholic Church in the United States can be a welcoming spiritual home to Latinos. According to the latest report from the Center for Advanced Research in the Apostolate (C.A.R.A.), Latinos are 40% of the U.S. Catholic population but only 25% of our parishes in our nation serve Latinos. In addition, 54% of Catholics under 30 years of age are Latinos. If Catholic churches don’t meet the needs of Latinos, one of the fastest growing populations in America, our people will seek to meet them elsewhere.

Another sobering report coming from the latest Pew Survey estimates that nearly one in four Latinos are former Catholics. Between the years 2010 to 2014 there was a drastic fall of 12% in the number of Latinos surveyed who identified as Catholic, from 67% to 55%, respectively. If this trend continues, the Church in the US will have to confront the reality of a future where the majority of Catholics are Latinos despite the majority of Latinos no longer Catholic.

In the face of this, how do we make our churches inviting to Latinos. It is important to start with those who can effect change in local communities. Our diocesan church leaders must take note of the population trend and dynamics in their diocese and start developing in conjunction with Latinos in the local church a pastoral plan that addresses the needs of the community. This should not be seen only as a problem to be addressed but as a mandate by our Lord for all disciples to bring the Good News to those in the peripheries of our society, to those who are not in our thanksgiving fiestas on Sundays.

Based on my pastoral experience in the Archdiocese of Washington, the Diocese of Grand Rapids and, the Diocese of Austin, I have found that the most inviting and welcoming parishes to Latinos are those that address the following areas:

  1. Liturgies in the language of the people – This may mean celebrating Masses in Spanish every Sunday if the community has a substantial presence of foreign-born and first-generation Latinos. Acceptance of one’s language is an acceptance of the person. If the community is comprised mostly of 2nd or later generations of Latinos, it would be beneficial to celebrate liturgies in Spanish during the two most attended liturgical celebrations by Latinos: Good Friday and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For many of the latter group, though their first language is English, they maintain a distinct Latino spirituality.
  2. Homilies – Latinos get more from homilies that speak to the lived reality of the community and provide a vision of hope and salvation. Generally, the homilies are longer since they express stories of struggles and joys of individuals, families and the community, which find meaning in the Good News of salvation found in Jesus Christ.
  3. A parish focused on social outreach – One of the most effective ways to evangelize is to have other Latinos at the forefront in providing for the basic needs of the community. This may be in the form of a parish outreach program that addresses needs such as affordable housing, medicine, English as a Second Language, immigration, and employment.
  4. “A home away from home.” – The parish is one of the first places Latinos seek for appreciation and recognition as members of Christ’s household, where their gifts and talents find recognition and value. Parish bulletins and announcements with Latino sensibilities in mind can provide an avenue for the expression of a spirituality that is unique to our culture. Having framed pictures or paintings that affirm Latino spirituality and culture, and having plenty of chairs in gathering spaces at the office and parish center help provide a sense of belonging and welcome.
  5. Mi casa es su casa.” – The Latino home is a sacred space where much of our religiosity and spirituality is lived. Many homes are adorned with several crucifixes, an “altarcito,” statues of saints – usually giving preeminence to an image of nuestra Virgencita (our Lady). As a pastoral seminarian at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids, my pastoral supervisor and I made it a priority to attempt visiting the homes of all the families that had children baptized the previous month. Having the priest visit their sacred space, sharing a meal with the family, and blessing the house, sent a clear message that the particular family was part of a bigger family. From one home visit, their view of church was expanded. What had been seen primarily as a dispenser of sacraments was now understood as a grace-filled community of believers that understood the Latino realities and cared for them. Most families visited would not hesitate to reintegrate themselves into our worshipping community at Sunday Mass and would maintain a vibrant connection to the larger family—the parish.

Realizing the challenges and opportunities for outreach to Latinos is just half the solution. Having pastoral leaders and ministers develop an acute sense of intercultural competence makes a world of difference. How do we become more understanding and appreciative of the ‘other’ among us who thinks and makes sense of the world in a different way than we do? This goes farther than a workshop or a staff development day. This hits to the essence of Pope Francis’ summons to pastoral leaders to have the heart of a shepherd and smell like the sheep. The good shepherd is able to take risks to address the needs of the lost and the wounded and is able to make decisions based on particular situations and context. To understand Latinos as individuals, one must understand the joys and struggles of the family and community since for many of us, la familia and la comunidad give us our identity. The church is more that a worshipping space for Sunday Mass. The church is understood as mi casa (my home) and mi comunidad (my community) that supports our families in our pilgrimage here on earth. Therefore, an inviting church is one that not only values family, community, and culture but one that makes visible the needed accompaniment, in the joys and struggles, of a pilgrim people en route to our greatest fiesta—an experience of life in God at the great eternal banquet.