Although parents may well attend whatever church makes their children feel most welcome, young people are not as likely to attend a church simply because it appeals to their parents. Win over the youth and perhaps win the whole family. If this anecdote is reasonable, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States is being constructed by young Hispanics.
The latest census reports that 35.7 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are less than 18 years old, compared to 23.5 percent of non-Hispanic whites. And while the population of Hispanic youth is expected to boom in the next 20 years, the non-Hispanic white youth population is expected to decline. This increase among Hispanics will account for most of the youth population growth over the next two decades.
In its Exploratory Study on the Status of Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the U.S., the Instituto Fe y Vida (Institute for Faith and Life) reports that while the Catholic Church overall is about 33 percent Hispanic, the young church is already around 45 percent Hispanic. In California, Hispanic youth now make up close to 75 percent of all Catholics under the age of 18. In Texas they outnumber non-Hispanics by almost two-to-one, and the number of dioceses nationwide in which they make up 50 percent or more is growing each year.
What Do We Know?
Unfortunately, we know very little. Only Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice, by Dean Hoge and others, includes a chapter on Hispanic youth. Most recent studies on young Catholics do not even consider them.
The 2000 census indicates that about half the Hispanics in the United States are native born; the remainder come from every Latin American country. Spanish is spoken in 85 percent of their homes, and 40 percent speak English less than well. Though increasing numbers are entering the middle class and engaging in university studies, only 57 percent of Hispanics completed high school, and just 9 percent are university graduates. Over 18 percent of Hispanic families live in poverty.
Because young Catholic Hispanics also exhibit this continuum of acculturation processes, specialists in Hispanic youth and young adult ministry, such as Instituto Fe y Vida and the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (La Red), emphasize ministry in both English and Spanish. An analysis done by La Red reveals that Spanish-speaking young people (single Hispanics between 18 and 30) are the better served. The status of ministry to bilingual Hispanic youth is unknown, and only sporadic attention is given specifically to English-speaking young Hispanic adults. For example, although the National Catholic Youth Conference 2001 had more Hispanic participation than ever, that participation was still tiny (5.2 percent). Why did so few Hispanic youth participate despite the best efforts of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, which included $100,000 in scholarships?
The following four observations from the Fe y Vida study suggest that a paucity of Hispanic ministers, their frequent turnover and limited academic preparation make it difficult to develop the ministry:
Of the 35 dioceses (19 percent) that have personnel trained to develop programs and coordinate this ministry at the parish level, 10 employ such ministers only part time.
Just 6 percent of the diocesan personnel ministering to youth in our country are themselves Hispanic. Of those, 40 percent do so half time, one day a week or as volunteers.
In Californiatraditionally the state with the strongest Hispanic ministrya quarter of the dioceses have no personnel specifically supporting ministry to young Hispanics. Another 25 percent have Hispanic youth and young adult ministers with a B.A. or equivalent; a further 25 percent have ministers with some courses at the college level; and 25 percent have ministers with only a high school diploma.
In the last 10 years, only four of California’s 13 dioceses have been able to retain their diocesan coordinator for that specific ministry for more than three years.
Scarcity of Skilled Ministers
Current efforts to develop leaders who will minister to Hispanic young Catholics are obviously insufficient. Poor recruitment and retention, as well as limited support for continuing education or full-time employment, are some of the reasons we have so few Hispanic leaders in youth and young adult ministry. Our bishops seem to be aware of this need.
According to a document of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs, Hispanic Ministry at the Turn of the New Millennium (November 1999), only 7.1 percent of bishops identified their youth programs as adequate. That was the lowest positive response rate of any ministry evaluated. Research conducted for the bishops by the Louisville Institute summarized the situation: Given the fact that the Latino population in this country is overwhelmingly young (approximately 50 percent are under the age of twenty-six and over 33 percent under the age of eighteen), the Church ignores Hispanic youth at its own peril.
The results of another recent survey, therefore, are not surprising. The Hispanic Churches in American Public Life Project explains the exodus of Hispanics from the Catholic Church precisely by generational differences. While 74 percent of immigrants are Catholic, only 66 percent of the second generation and 59 percent of third and later generations remain Catholic.
If the urgings of Andrew Greeley, Allan Figueroa Deck, Juan Díaz Vilar, and others in the pages of America about the need to re-examine ministry to Hispanics are true, the need is especially great in the case of younger Hispanics. Local churches need to invest in Hispanic young leadership that is carefully selected, well educated and properly supported. This will require that church structures created to serve white non-Hispanic Catholics be re-evaluated in response to this new pastoral reality.
Structural Challenges and Hopes
The relatively more numerous clergy and considerably greater money in the United States has created a local church with a powerful infrastructure of parish employees, diocesan offices, hospitals, schools, professional organizations, publishing houses and the like. This phenomenon has led to a highly professionalized ministry that requires large investments in education, technology and support services. Such an expensive church infrastructure, with its corresponding models of ministry, may well serve non-Hispanic whites, especially from middle and upper classes. But it tends to eclipse apostolates that do not share the same cultural presumptions, and this hinders the development of different ministerial models. Popular religion and apostolic movements that are not similarly organized, for example, or that do not share the same spirituality may be misunderstood or dismissed.
But because Latin American parish and diocesan infrastructures are considerably weaker, ministry relies strongly on the leadership of the young people themselves, who are very often products of apostolic movements. And popular religion is constitutive of the way most Latin Americans are Catholic. Hence the models of youth and young adult ministry in North and South America are quite different, because of different histories, socioeconomic realities and cultures. Since the uniqueness of Hispanic youth and young adults in the United States is precisely that they negotiate both of those cultures and histories, any ministry to them must address this peculiar experience.
Well-trained Hispanic young adults can best minister to their own, because they best understand those cultural crossroads. They can exemplify this crossroad Christianity to other youth and young adults in the bicultural or multicultural environment in which they live. Such leaders are also able to bridge the gap between the current leadership of the U.S. church’s infrastructure (largely non-Hispanic whites) and young Hispanics. As examples and bridge builders, they are potential architects of success.
Recruiting, educating and retaining such ministers is therefore vital. This requires a strong, sustained and coordinated investment through stewardship, education and communication, at which our country’s ecclesial infrastructure excels. Hence the thesis of this article: U.S. church structures, especially at parish and diocesan levels, would be well served by investing considerably greater resources in Hispanic youth and young adult ministry leadership development.
All this is not to say that there is presently no good ministry for Catholic young Hispanics in the country. Some parishes, dioceses and apostolic movements do excellent work. More vocation directors and seminaries are responding. And the same Fe y Vida study extols the tremendous time and energy that thousands of Hispanic young people invest in ministering to their peers. But much more sustained and coordinated support of Hispanic leadership is necessary for effective ministry to a population the size of young Hispanics. Despite the best intentions, the church will continue to be ineffective if parishes and occasional dioceses only intermittently have ministers who are architects of successthat is, young Hispanics who serve as bridge builders between our differing cultural presumptions and ministerial models.
Reflecting upon all this, La Red, Instituto Fe y Vida and the South East Pastoral Institute presented a proposal to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs to promote ministry to young Hispanics. Approved by the committee at their November 2001 meeting, the goals of the initiative are: 1) to improve and expand ministry to Hispanic youth and young adults; 2) to coordinate national, diocesan and parish efforts to integrate ministry to young Hispanics effectively into the mission of the church; 3) to offer sound formation for youth ministers and pastoral advisers from this community based on the bishops’ National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry and Encuentro 2000.
Among others, the following actions were also recommended to the bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs in order to achieve those goals: 1) engage in a dialogue with the bishops’ Committee on Youth and Young Adult Ministry and, with the collaboration of that committee, launch a decade of intensive support and advocacy for the development of Hispanic youth and young adult ministry in both English and Spanish; 2) write a pastoral letter focusing on ministry to the younger generations of Hispanic Catholics with the aim of presenting this invisible segment of our church to the conscience of other church leaders; 3) request the support of Catholic foundations and organizations for programs to form pastoral ministers capable of serving Hispanic youth and young adults in the language in which they live their faith life.
No one suggests simply throwing money at a problem. Hispanic young people are not a problem, but a solution. The National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry collaborated on a recent study that demonstrates that, if given the tools, young Hispanics will be architects of a successful ministry: Hispanic Catholic leadership development (especially among women, youth and young adults) requires an immediate and significant investment, but once formed, such leaders are very likely to in turn contribute time, talent, and treasure to the Church.