Since it experienced widespread conversion following Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to St. Juan Diego in 1531, Mexico has been a stronghold of the Catholic Faith. But in recent years the Church has been losing ground in chunks to Evangelicals and sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At a recent seminar I attended, the questions were about Catholics who abandon the Faith they were brought up in. A woman walked to the microphone. She was of indeterminate age, but looked old enough to have teenage children. From the sad expression on her face I knew she was going to tell us that her children had left the Catholic Church.
Through tears and with a slight Spanish accent she said, “I just found out my parents have become Jehovah’s Witnesses. What should I do?”
Misconceptions about Hispanic Catholics
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Among Hispanics, not only is the exodus to the sects proportionately greater than among other Catholics, but for them there is no safety in age. If the discussions at seminars I’ve given are any indication, it may be that most Hispanics who leave the Church are beyond young adulthood. This contrasts with non-Hispanic who leave the Church; they seem to be chiefly in their teens and twenties.
That’s one misconception about Hispanic Catholics. Here’s another. Most non-Hispanics think Hispanics don’t read. Granted, many of them don’t, and some of them can’t, but that’s true of non-Hispanics too. In fact, many Hispanic Catholics are hungry for good Catholic writing.
At one of the first seminars I gave at a Hispanic parish, we took only a modest selection of English and Spanish books, thinking sales would be small. Wrong. The literature table was cleaned out in minutes, and people left us their names so we’d send them catalogues.
False notions about Hispanic Catholics are widespread.
People say you must be Hispanic to reach Hispanics—not so much because of a language barrier (which often isn’t even there, since many Hispanics are bilingual), but because of some cultural barrier.
F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that “the rich are not like you and me,” and many non-Hispanics think “Hispanics are not like you and me either.” There’s no way for a non-Hispanic to reach Hispanics, they think. There’s a sense in which it is true that Hispanic Catholics are not like other Catholics—if it weren’t true, one couldn’t distinguish a Hispanic from a non-Hispanic—but the same can be said of members of any group.
When it comes to evangelization, the notion of a gap is, if not mainly wrong, at least unhelpful. It’s a mistake to think the problems affecting Hispanic Catholics are unlike those affecting other Catholics. The problems of one group mirror those of other groups, and the solutions that work for one group will work for others.
Like other Catholics, Hispanics want doctrine-filled preaching from the pulpit, Bible studies that presuppose the Bible to be inspired and factual, and adult education classes that answer real questions. If Catholic laypeople push for such things in their parishes, Hispanics will turn out—and will stay in the parishes. The same goes for other Catholics, of course.
Still, there are differences.
It might be best to say the differences, at least where evangelization is concerned, are a matter of sequence or emphasis. We can see this in the way Hispanics are proselytized. Non-Catholic missionaries know that Hispanics tend to have a greater interest in Marian devotions than do other Catholics. Sectarians begin their conversations, as often as not, trying to disprove such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the perpetual virginity of Mary. If non-Hispanic Catholics get asked about these doctrines, it is usually later in the discussion, and sometimes they don’t get asked at all.
It may be prudent to appeal to the popular religiosity of Hispanics. This is especially true for the most recent immigrants, who wish to maintain a tie to the culture they left. The Catholic who shuns pageants, processions, and devotions lives in a different world from the Catholic whose life and culture have been formed around such things, and the Catholic who betrays a disregard for the affective element will not get far in evangelizing Hispanics.
But it isn’t sufficient, in the long run, merely to transplant the affective side of Latin American Catholicism to the U.S. That may be enough to hold those who immigrated as adults and who live in cultural enclaves where daily life is hardly distinguishable from that in the old country, but it won’t be enough to hold their children and grandchildren, who, no matter what goes on in the barrio parish, live in a society imbued more with the spirit of American Gothic than with the spirit of Spanish Baroque. It is precisely these Hispanics—second- and third-generation—who demand more of Christianity than their forebears did.
Hungry for truth
Hispanics in this country, whether immigrants or natives, are hungry for Catholic truth. They want to be reassured they’re just as capable of defending the faith as are other Catholics, and they want to be shown how a defense can be made. This was brought home to me when one of my colleagues gave a two-evening seminar in a parish in a Los Angeles barrio. Four hundred adults were present each evening.
That itself was quite a feat, considering that most of these impoverished people had to walk to the church, not having cars, and that they had to walk through a dangerous neighborhood. Most were natives of Mexico, but many were from Central America and South America.
My colleague spoke about Fundamentalism, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with emphasis on the last. In this parish, every home was visited regularly by the Witnesses—an indication of how successful the Witnesses had been. (They concentrated their efforts where they had success and avoided areas where converts were few.) Nearly every family had lost someone to the sects. Parents complained about children who abandoned their hereditary faith, and children talked about parents who, in middle age, underwent a religious flip-flop.
In addition to responding to the standard charges against the Church, my colleague told his listeners they shouldn’t doubt the religion of their upbringing when confronted with questions they couldn’t answer. He encouraged them to study their Catholic Faith and read the Bible, but he also noted that sanctity and fidelity do not depend on intellectual attainments. (We are saved neither by faith alone nor by brains alone.)
Again and again he told the people they were in the right church and should stay there. This was precisely what they wanted to hear. Even more than facts and arguments they needed a pat on the back. They were tired of being told by missionaries that they had to leave Catholicism to be saved. They were tired of suspecting that unless they knew all the answers they were doomed.
At the conclusion of the seminar the audience not only broke into applause, which might have been expected, but stood up and broke into song. They had heard what they had been waiting years to hear—and they heard it from a layman. This last point should not be underestimated.
Priests and religious have a crucial role to play in evangelization, but without lay involvement (even lay leadership) evangelization will go nowhere. Missionaries who go door-to-door in Hispanic neighborhoods never tire of reminding their listeners that priests and religious are in the pay of the Church, and why should anyone think “lackeys” would give a dispassionate view of the Church that is their paymaster? Despite the high regard traditionally given to ecclesiastics by Hispanics, this argument has force, which is why a lay apologist can make more headway than can a clerical apologist.
The longer Hispanics are in this country, the more they need more than just an affective religion. They also need an intellective one. This doesn’t mean most of them are interested in labyrinthine theology. Few are. (Few non-Hispanics are.) What it does mean is that they have been asked “Why?” and “What?” and now ask those questions of themselves. “Why am I here?” “What must I do to be saved?”
How are they to get answers? In the Middle Ages stained glass windows were the books of the poor. Now that most Catholic churches are built in a nouveau-barn style, that method of instruction is out. The poor are left only with the pulpit, and what they get—which is what the non-poor also get, of course—is inadequate. Even if homilies were chock-full of doctrinal instruction, more would be needed.
Each parish needs a lively, lay-run evangelization program, one that involves all parishioners regardless of cultural background or language. (It is surprising how many friendships can develop between people who speak one another’s language only poorly or not at all.) Until our parishes have such programs, backed up by solid teaching during Mass, the exodus to the sects will continue.