Latino diversity: complex but important to vocation ministry

Latino diversity: complex but important to vocation ministry

By Fr. Gary Riebe-Estrella S.V.D.

IN THE RECENT STUDY commissioned by the U.S. bishops on vocational discernment among nevermarried Catholics, the generalizations about why a disproportionately low number of Latino men and women enter priesthood and religious life in the United States ring true: lower attendance at Catholic schools, lack of being invited to consider a vocation; citizenship obstacles.

However, as always, generalizations about Latinos do not reveal the complex diversity of this segment of the U.S. Catholic population. Generalizations engage in the overview, while effective vocation promotion deals with the very concrete groups of potential vocations which populate the Catholic landscape. Effectiveness in vocation ministry relies on identifying the very specific characteristics of each group and of the individuals within it. My intention in this reflection is not to criticize the current study, which adds decisively to what we know of vocational discernment among Latino Catholics who have never married. Rather, my hope is to encourage those engaged on the ground with vocation promotion to shape strategically their approach to specific segments of this population. This approach could help intensify the effectiveness of their efforts.

There are a number of salient characteristics of the Latino participants in this survey which, were they known, might help vocation directors develop tools better suited for approaching a particular group of potential Latino vocations. I list just a few of these as examples of the need to use a targeted approach to vocation promotion among Latinos.

U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to have had their primary experience of church within the framework of a geographic parish. In many cases this may have been an experience of cultural exclusion rather than of inclusion. For this group, vocation literature might want to highlight notes of welcome and of cultural sensitivity in order to be effective.

Non-U.S.-born Latinos, on the other hand, may have less experience of the institutional church in the U.S. With perhaps fewer negative experiences and with a more familybased religious experience, they might respond to approaches that affirm the value of that particular religious experience.

The Cuban population is by far the most welleducated and prosperous segment of the Latino community in the U.S. In this context vocation directors might want to mount vocation programs in Catholic schools in Cuban neighborhoods and to emphasize the richness of the educational training for priesthood and religious life. Latinos of Mexican ancestry, as well as Puerto Ricans, are, on the whole, less well-off and have less experience of education. Reducing their anxiety about the difficulty of achieving educational success in preparing for priesthood and religious life, as well as clearly pointing out what economic resources might be available to help during the discernment period, would be critical.

The majority of Latinos experiencing difficulties with legal status in the U.S. are Mexican, since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, and many Cubans have immigrated through special status programs. Issues of legal status should play a far less significant role in vocation promotion among these latter groups, but citizenship should be addressed forthrightly among Latinos of Mexican descent since so much fear and uncertainty surrounds this issue.

The language differences between newer immigrants and native-born people needs to be attended to by vocation directors. However, studies show that the way both groups think about God and the sacred—that is, their religious imagination—is more connected with their roots than with the length of their presence in the United States. As a result, vocational materials in English need to reflect the religious world of Latinos. Correspondingly, materials in Spanish cannot simply be translations of materials used for non- Hispanics.

Latino priests and religious are not interchangeable parts when it comes to serving as role models to inspire potential candidates to think about a vocation to priesthood or religious life. U.S.-born Latinos do not readily identify with foreign-born Latino priests and religious. Attracting U.S.-born Latino/as to vocational discernment requires the strategic use of their native-born counterparts. The growing number of non-U.S.-born priests and religious in this country should not raise unrealistic expectations of a rise in native-born vocations.

I encourage vocation ministers to begin learning about the Latino populations that would be a natural part of their outreach. A good place to start might be talking to your members who minister with Latinos. What sub-groups of young Latinos do your members already have contact with? What are the needs of these Latino populations? If your community is in specific geographic areas, consider talking to staff at the diocesan Hispanic Ministry Office or Multicultural Office about the local realities. The more you know about the population that you’d like to invite, the more effective your outreach can be.

What I’m attempting to highlight in this reflection is that, while the recent study done for the U.S. bishops gives us some general factors to pay attention to in all vocation promotion with never-married Latinos, the effectiveness of this promotion will in great part depend on vocation directors getting beyond the overview to see specific characteristics of the Latinos they contact. For effective vocation promotion the layers of diversity within with Latino community need to be peeled back and strategies developed to address the particularity of each group. Just as a one-size-fits-all approach to vocations does not work for the overall population, neither does it work for Latinos.

Father Gary Riebe-Estrella, SVD belongs to the Divine Word Missionaries and is dean emeritus at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A focus of his as a scholar has been theological themes from the experience of U.S. Latinos. He has also worked with congregations admitting people of color.

 



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