Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Jose Luis Aguirre/Catholic San Francisco)

Worshippers are pictured at Sunday Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Menlo Park. Hispanics make up more than 50 percent of the Roman Catholic faithful in California.

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The big altar and the little altar
July 24th, 2012

Hispanic Catholics’ embrace of the Eucharist and personal devotion is changing US church


Catholic San Francisco spoke with Presentation Sister Gloria Inés Loya and Jesuit Father Robert McChesney about the rapid growth of Hispanics in the U.S. church. Earlier this month at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, they led the 24th Instituto Hispano – an intensive program for Catholic leaders, primarily laity, who minister to or lead the growing number of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking Catholics across the U.S. Sister Gloria is the coordinator of the Hispanic Institute as well as a theology instructor at the JST. Father McChesney is the director of both the Intercultural Initiatives and the New Directions Sabbatical programs at the JST, and interim director for the Hispanic Institute.

Q: How much of the growth in the U.S. church is due to Hispanics?
A: Sister Gloria: We can see right now that in the 12 dioceses in California the Catholic population is 50 percent Hispanic, and in some dioceses more. And we’re talking about a median age of 22.

Q: How are the attributes of Hispanic Catholics changing the church and challenging the church?
A: Sister Gloria: I don’t think we’re either liberal or conservative. We’re a people who have tradition. We love and cherish our tradition, for example Roman Catholicism, in the ways we express our devotions: (for example) the feast of Guadalupe, the feasts of Mary. I think we have something to add that’s different – I’m not saying better or worse. For us the faith is at the Eucharist and the large altar, but then we have the little altar in our houses. We have the pictures or our loved ones that died.

Q: How is this changing the (institutional) life of the church?
A: Sister Gloria: It is not that easy to get vocations to the priesthood in the U.S. among Hispanics. But among Hispanics there is great respect for the priesthood and religious life. And certainly we are looking at the response of our laypeople to be better formed. We’ve a got a lot of challenges.

Father McChesney: It’s also changing the face of schools and seminaries because we have to prepare our students for the changing face of the church, and that means attention to the devotional life of the Mexicans and the Latins in general. There is much more of a devotional faith than many of our students are familiar with. It takes me back to the church of the ‘50s. We have to prepare our students to be part of a more devotional church.

Q: What do you mean by devotional?
A: Sister Gloria: In the liturgical year we have special feasts that are important to our community. But then there are saints that people have brought from their villages … They have, for example, holy people from their village that they have statues of in their home. Certainly the Sacred Heart will be very strong in many Latino homes, that whole thing of the loving heart of Jesus. These are people who are immigrants, who have suffered immigration and are coming to this country. … For example, how do we look at those in the liturgy and the Scriptures?

Father McChesney: We practice posadas during Advent time. The Latino Catholics will process around the neighborhood knocking on the door. It goes back to no room at the inn. Beautiful, devotional. I’m an Irish-American Caucasian but I’ve had to learn that because it’s certainly the religious practice.

Sister Gloria: A lot of our devotions are done through drama, so you re-enact Joseph and Mary knocking on the door as they are about to have a child. Another big one in the Mexican community is the feast of Christ the King. If you saw the film “For Greater Glory,” it tells about the story of the persecution of the (Mexican) church in the 1930s. If you know the story, they had to hide the priests. At that time the code word was “Viva Cristo Rey.”

Father McChesney: I have been taken back to my youthful practice of devotion, if you will, because it’s a way of prayer I needed to cultivate to serve the Latin community because it’s so central to them.

Q: How is the U.S. church being influenced by Hispanic bishops?
A: Sister Gloria: I see more Hispanic bishops now. I know they are concerned and they feel the number of Hispanics is growing. The bishops are the only organization supporting comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t see any other organization in the country.

Father McChesney: I think the Hispanic bishops have had a huge impact on immigration reform.

Sister Gloria: I think that’s why our people are part of the church – because they trust the church. They’re coming from other countries. They see that the heart of the matter is the sacraments and the faith.

Q: What has been the impact of Pentecostal Protestantism on Hispanic Catholics?

A: Sister Gloria: I belong to the Academy of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. We’re trying to have a dialogue (with Protestant groups) so we can learn more and they learn about us. A lot of Hispanic Catholics are charismatics. That’s part of why we have the institute, so their prayer life can be grounded in tradition.

Father McChesney: We are going to have maybe 45 people from across the country, primarily from the Bay Area. One of our goals is to ground them in the Roman Catholic Church. We’re aware of the trend. That’s one reason we’re here.

The 2013 instituto Hispano will be held July 14-26 at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. Visit and follow the link for programs, or contact Jesuit Father Robert McChesney at or (510) 549-5046.

Interview by Rick DelVecchio,Catholic San Francisco

Hispanic/Latino Catholics by the numbers

Hispanics/Latinos are present in almost all U.S. diocese.

More than 20 percent of all Catholic parishes in the U.S. have Hispanic/Latino ministry.

More than 80 percent of all (arch)dioceses have diocesan staff coordinating Hispanic/Latino ministry.

Hispanics/Latinos compose more than 35 percent of all Catholics in the U.S.

Hispanics/Latinos have contributed 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since 1960.

More than 50 percent of all Catholics in the U.S. under age 25 are of Hispanic/Latino descent.

Over the past few years, 15 percent of all new priests ordained in the U.S. have been of Hispanic/Latino descent.

Hispanics/Latinos constitute 25 percent of all laypeople engaged in diocesan ministry programs.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of all Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S. consider themselves to be Roman Catholics.

USCCB, U.S. Census Bureau



From July 27, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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