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Bishops Make Ministry to Latinos a New Focus

Nov 14, 2002 03:00 AM EST

WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved a new plan Tuesday for ministering to Latinos, a reflection of both the growing presence of Latinos in the church and the competition for their religious loyalties.

The annual meeting here of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been dominated by discussion of the yearlong scandal caused by sexually abusive priests. Today the bishops plan to vote on a revised policy for handling such cases.

But Tuesday, the prelates turned to another topic that is transforming a church that has long been dominated in the United States by the descendants of Irish, German and Italian immigrants.

The growing percentage of Latinos among the Catholic faithful has altered parishes far from traditional population centers such as Los Angeles.

Latinos now make up 39% of the United States' 65 million Catholics and have accounted for 71% of the church's growth in recent decades, according to church estimates.

In one out of five Catholic parishes in the U.S., Latinos are now a majority presence, a church study has found.

"We are extremely aware of the growing predominance of Hispanics in the United States," Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas said Tuesday. "In the new millennium, so much of what we do will be ministering to Hispanics. They are not a small immigrant isolated group. They are not the minority. They are becoming a majority," he said.

The new ministry plan, "Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry," calls for incorporating Latinos into the life and leadership of the church and grooming them for leadership positions. Music, language and ritual books should be available in Spanish, and evangelization of the Latino population should be a major emphasis, the report says.

That emphasis on evangelization reflects a major problem the church faces. Even as Latino numbers are growing in Catholic parishes, many other Latinos are leaving the church, often for Protestant evangelical congregations.

The largest numbers of Latino Catholics remain in the Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami metropolitan regions, home to a quarter of the nation's Latino Catholics.

But much of the growth is occurring in less-traditional areas. Across the United States, bishops in places that historically have had low numbers of Latinos now say they need Spanish-speaking priests, liturgies that reflect Latino culture, and counseling and social services tailored for the new parishioners.

The growth of the Latino population in the church "is my No. 1 pastoral concern," said Bishop Joseph L. Charron, who heads the diocese of Des Moines.

Of the estimated 100,000 Catholics in the diocese, which covers the southwest corner of Iowa and part of Nebraska, 25,000 are Latinos, he said.

In an area where Spanish-speaking priests are rare, "How can I deal with the influx of minority people?" Charron asked.

The shortage of Spanish-speaking priests is a major factor in the success that evangelical churches have had in proselytizing among Catholics, according to the bishops' Committee on Hispanic Affairs, which produced the new plan for Latino ministry.

"There's been a lot of growth, a lot of vitality," Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston told reporters Tuesday. "Yet it continues to challenge, because of the growth and the lack of priests."

Currently, the Catholic Church has one priest for every 1,230 parishioners, but only one Spanish-speaking priest for every 9,925 Latino Catholics, according to church studies.

But bishops say they can also count on a reservoir of goodwill among Latino Catholics. Those who have ministered to Latino communities for years say many immigrants who come from countries where distrust of the government is widespread see the church as a natural home.

Finding them, however, can be a problem, especially if they are undocumented workers, said Charron, the Iowa bishop. As workers try to avoid immigration authorities, "they become more and more invisible," he said.

Passage of the new plan does not guarantee success, bishops conceded. Two years ago during a nationwide meeting of ethnic-ministry leaders in Los Angeles, Stewart Lawrence, a research analyst who had completed a national study on Latino Catholics, said a key weakness of the church's past pronouncements was that bishops had failed to set down a specific agenda that would incorporate minorities into leadership positions.

"There have never been adequate mechanisms in place to ensure that important pronouncements made by the bishops at the national level trickle all the way down to the faithful," Lawrence said then. "Each bishop decides what he wants to do, and then you still have to convince his pastors, and that's where a lot of the resistance is."

This time, however, bishops meeting in Washington said they are committed to pressing ahead.

Charron could already point to some progress. Five years ago, he had just one person on his Hispanic-ministry staff in Iowa. Today there are five.

By Larry B. Stammer