Affirming a vocation culture in Hispanic families

Affirming a vocation culture in Hispanic families

By Hosffman Ospino

Soon a majority of  the U.S. Catholic Church will be Hispanic. Photo by J.D. Long Garcia, courtesy of Catholic Sun.

THE CHURCH HAS MANY TIMES SPOKEN of the family as “the source of vocations.”  For instance, the 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America notes the central vocational role of families. A Christian family that celebrates the Eucharist, embraces the sacraments, prays together, and practices God’s love while caring for others is without a doubt a privileged context where the young “discover a vocation of service in the community and the Church, and … learn, especially by seeing the example of their parents, that family life is a way to realize the universal call to holiness.” (Ecclesia in America, sec. 46). Without a doubt this is a very compelling vision.

But Catholic families do not exist in a vacuum. Families are shaped by the conditions and circumstances of their particular society and moment in history. It would be unrealistic, then, to expect that Catholic families in the 2010s would mirror those of the 1950s. Equally unrealistic is to imagine that a Mexican Catholic family that migrated to the United States would practice its faith exactly as if it lived in Latin America 20 years earlier.

If the American Catholic family, in all its complexity and expressions, is to be a source of vocations—priests, sisters, brothers, lay ecclesial ministers, Christian disciples—we must have a good sense of what this family looks like and the circumstances in which it lives here and now. A closer look at Hispanic families seems to be a good way to begin.

 Hispanics redefining U.S. Catholicism

To speak of American Catholicism usually evokes the experience of Euro-American, that is, white Catholics and their communities. Whether one refers to American Catholic political, philanthropic, or ecclesiastical influence, the collective imagination almost instinctively presupposes this population. Yet, current demographics tell a different story.

Hispanics constitute about 43 percent of the entire U.S. Catholic population today. Yet most telling is the estimated 60 percent of all U.S. Catholics under age 18 who are Hispanic. (Note: while the focus of this essay is Hispanics, it is worth mentioning that the fastest-growing population in the U.S. church is Asian.) These numbers reveal a major demographic transformation in the Catholic Church in the United States in a rather short period of time. Of course this is not the first time that U.S. Catholicism has experienced such transformation. Yet it is important to remember that when millions of Catholic immigrants from Europe settled in the United States as their new home during the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were meager structures in place, almost no personnel and no resources to welcome them. The new Catholic immigrant wave, however—mostly from Latin America and Asia—comes into an extensively more organized and resource-filled experience of being church.

At the heart of these demographic changes is the decades-long, almost uninterrupted migratory wave from Latin America, especially from Mexico. There are approximately 20 million immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean living in the United States, about 70 percent of whom are Catholic. Every year the United States adds about 1 million immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean to its population. In turn, Hispanics have one of the highest birth rates among all populations in the country. The majority of Hispanics living in the country (61 percent) are U.S.-born, and millions of them are very young.

Great variety within Hispanic population

Technically speaking, Hispanics as a whole are not an immigrant group, which comes as a surprise to many, especially since most resources dedicated to Hispanic ministry focus largely on services to immigrant populations. Catholic self-identification among U.S.-born Hispanics is much lower than that among immigrants, which should be a major area of concern for pastoral leaders and anyone interested in vocations in the church. All in all, we are at a moment in which a major portion—the largest!—of the next generation of American Catholics will be U.S.-born Hispanics who are essentially being raised by immigrant parents and relatives.

Catholicism (about 55 percent of all Hispanics self-identify as Catholic) and the Spanish language (about 71 percent of Hispanics five and older speak Spanish at home) still serve as the two main characteristics that unite Hispanics. However, the shared religious and linguistic roots are no indicators of homogeneity. Arriving from more than 20 different countries, each with a rich variety of subcultures, the Hispanic immigrant experience is quite complex. Also, the fact that nearly two thirds of Hispanics are U.S.-born, calls for an assessment of how we understand and approach the Hispanic Catholic experience.

While Hispanics, particularly those who are U.S.-born, are integrating fast into the larger culture and into the life of the church in the United States, this integration is simultaneously transforming church and society at their cores. We are witnessing the birth of a new way of being American and Catholic with a strong Hispanic identity and in dialogue with the many other cultural expressions that are reshaping U.S. Catholicism in the 21st century. The next generation of Catholic leaders, in the church and beyond, must be aware of these transformations. We cannot afford to ignore them. Doing so risks sidelining the largest and youngest portion of our Catholic community, thus becoming practically irrelevant to our own people.

One question Catholic leaders may want to ask themselves is this: has our collective consciousness kept up with the changes that are transforming thousands of Catholic faith communities and families nationwide?

In Hispanic families, godparents tend to be much more than the people who take part in a one-time sacrament. They are comadre and compadre, co-mother and co-father, and  typically have a lifelong, close connection to the child and the family. Photo by Ricardo Ricardo, Flickr.

Let’s be realistic about Hispanic families

One of the most common points I address in my writings and presentations as a pastoral theologian is the idealization of the Hispanic family. I often hear from pastoral leaders that they like Hispanic families because they often see these parents and children come together to Mass and because these parents are having many children who in turn are brought to our churches to be baptized. What is not to like about this? Nationally, about two thirds of Hispanic households have a married couple. According to the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry, which I had the privilege to lead as its principal investigator (published in 2015 by Our Sunday Visitor), two thirds of all children baptized in parishes serving Hispanic Catholics are, in fact, Hispanic.  

These are positive realities that need to be highlighted as we serve Hispanic families and affirm a culture of vocation among them. Hispanics by and large have a strong sense of family life that naturally nurtures sensibilities about life in common and the possibility of dedicating one’s life to the service of others. This sense of family life has been deeply influenced by centuries of Catholic presence in the Southwest, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Another significant influence is the communal character shared by most Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Hispanic cultures. Certainly this meshes with the communal nature of religious life.

But the uncritical celebration of a sense of family can obscure the importance of realities that, if ignored, may be detrimental to discerning vocations  among Hispanic Catholics. Let me highlight three of those realities.

 

SNAPSHOT OF HISPANIC YOUNG PEOPLE

Identity Seekers
30-45 percent

Immigrant Workers
20-40 percent

Mainstream Movers
15-25 percent

Gang Members,
High-Risk Youth 10-15 percent

Mostly born in the U.S.

Mostly of Mexican origin

Mostly born in the U.S.

Mostly born in the U.S.

Children of immigrants

Many are undocumented

May leave barrio behind

Anger toward society

Mostly bilingual

Mostly Spanish-speaking

Mostly English speaking

Limited bilingual abilities

Low self esteem

Have large families

May attend private schools

Experience despair

Struggle to finish school

Little formal education

College education

Little formal education

Unmotivated/apathetic

Motivated and hopeful

Motivated and hopeful

Most are unemployed

May find hope in work or family relationships

Willing to work hard

Willing to work hard

Many live in inner cities

Mostly lower-middle class

Mostly lower class

Mostly middle to upper class

Mostly lower class

May seek refuge in drugs, alcohol, promiscuity

Many seek moral and spiritual support from church

May leave Catholic Church

Many are incarcerated

 

74 percent are Catholic

May look down on other Hispanics

May look down on other Hispanics

 

Extended family is valued—An overemphasis on the nuclear family can prevent us from appreciating the importance and influence of the extended family (i.e., grandmothers, aunts, and uncles), which for Hispanics often plays a major role in the education of the young, religious self-identification, and the definition of career paths. The extended family often constitutes the first level in Hispanic families’ support networks, especially for women, on matters of care and the education of children.

Poverty has real effects—One in four Hispanics lives in poverty. About another quarter lives near the poverty level. Hispanics who are more prone to live in poverty are those who are undocumented, those living in rural areas, and those with less than high school education. Poverty tends to go hand-in-hand with low levels of educational attainment. Only 17 percent of Hispanic adults have a bachelor’s degree or more. Seventy percent of Hispanic children are born to mothers with a high school degree or less, who tend to be twice as poor compared to the rest of the Hispanic population. Poverty among Hispanics also has an impact on parishes that serve them and on any programming that fosters a culture of vocation. When compared to parishes without Hispanic ministry, most parishes serving Hispanic Catholics struggle financially and are less likely to have a hired youth minister or sponsor a Catholic school.  Both of these ministries encourage faithful disciples, that is, Catholics inclined to consider a church vocation.

Generation gap worsened by migratory dynamics—Regular intergenerational family (and church) dynamics are often exacerbated by cultural and migratory realities. The majority of the nearly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country are Hispanic, mostly Mexican. In 2015 about 1 in 15 of all children in the country—almost all born in the U.S.—live with an unauthorized parent. Adults who were born in a different country, hold particular sets of cultural values, and practice their Catholicism in very unique ways are raising children born in a culture that is in turn pluralistic, pragmatic, and rapidly secularizing.

Just imagine having a conversation about vocation under these circumstances. Or let’s start by simply talking about why go to Mass and in what language! This same complicated dynamic is replicated in our parishes. The 2014 National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry revealed that the majority of Hispanic Catholic pastoral leaders are immigrants: more than 95 percent of sisters, about 90 percent of priests, and 65 to 70 percent of lay ecclesial ministers are immigrants. They are serving Catholic families with children and youth born and raised in the United States. According to the March 2013 Current Population Survey, 93 percent of Hispanics under the age of 18 are U.S.-born. Are we speaking common languages? Perhaps we do at a surface level, but the interpreting frameworks are profoundly different, and that needs to be taken into consideration when speaking about a culture of vocation.

Sister Mary Ann Connolly, O.P. talks to visitors at the Dominican Sisters of Peace booth at the 2015 Latino Festival in Columbus, Ohio.

These three dynamics—extended family, poverty, and a generation gap with great cultural differences—illustrate the complexity that characterizes the lives of millions of Hispanic families. A future essay can explore other dynamics that deserve to be highlighted as well, including the pervasive presence of structural racism, the luring power of secularization making major inroads among Hispanic youth, and the lack of intercultural competencies among many pastoral leaders. It is quite tempting for ministers in our church to spend much time searching for a common approach (that is, a one-size-fits-all strategy) to Hispanic family ministry or to fostering vocations among Hispanics. If we can dwell for a while on the complexity of the reality at hand, we could then be more effective in affirming a culture of vocation among these families.

Build on strengths to foster vocation

Duc in Altum! “Put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4). These words are often echoed in our faith communities when we speak about the call to missionary discipleship. They also ring loud and clear in conversations about our vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ and the various expressions of that vocation. Keeping in mind what we have been exploring, it becomes imperative to ask: what does it mean to say duc in altum in light of the experience of the Hispanic family? What are the most prevalent elements of a culture of vocation rooted in that experience?

It would be a major pastoral and cultural oversight to assume that Hispanic Catholic families lack an understanding of the idea of “vocation.” The fact that this is a common term in Catholic circles and that Catholicism has historically permeated much of the Hispanic cultural worldviews allows us to safely assume that most of these families have some form of understanding —even if rudimentary—of the term in its theological sense. This is certainly a good starting point. But we need to go deeper into the Hispanic experience and ask what else is worth affirming.

A most obvious characteristic at the service of a culture of vocation is what has been identified as the Hispanic sense of family. The experience of family is often mediated through a commitment to traditional forms of family life (i.e., parents and children in a household), with strong participation from the extended family, particularly in affairs such as caring for and educating the young. But the sense of family does not end there. There is the role of madrinas (godmothers) and padrinos (godfathers) who are more than pro-forma participants in a religious ritual. They become de facto second parents and have a responsibility to children and the rest of the family. Parents and godparents become compadres (to be a father with) and comadres (to be a mother with).

Vocation offices in religious orders and dioceses should work with grandparents and godparents, among others, so these family members can fulfill more effectively the accompaniment role they play in their families—not merely using them to transmit information, but empowering them to be agents of vocational life in the everyday. This certainly demands a much needed commitment to adult catechesis among Hispanic adults.

 

HONORING THE HISPANIC SENSE OF FAMILY

How do religious order vocation ministers adapt their practices for Hispanic families? Some possibilities are:

• Think beyond the nuclear family when serious candidates want family members to connect with the community.  Family means grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.

• Community members who are doing parish ministry might incorporate content about Catholic vocations during baptism preparation.  Keep in mind that Hispanic godparents often play an important role in a child’s life.

• Consider casting a wider net when  sponsoring vocation outreach activities. Hispanic young adults may be more likely than others to attend activities with parents, grandparents, or other family members.  Let them know they can.

 

While new immigrants are an important part of the Hispanic Catholic population, the majority—particularly the young—have been born and raised in the U.S. Pictured here are Hispanic families in San Jose, California taking part in a 2006 immigrant rights demonstration. 

Learn the stories of the people

Twenty-five years ago Catholic historian Moisés Sandoval referred to Hispanics as a people “on the move” (On the Move: A History of the Hispanic Church in the United States). His expression truly captures the experience of Hispanics in the United States territory during the last 500 years. The move for millions of Hispanics was unchosen in the case of those who were annexed to the U.S. territory (much of the Southwest), those who were colonized, and those who ended up on U.S. shores and borders in exile or fleeing some form of social ill (poverty, hunger, violence, persecution). For millions more the move meant searching for a better existence with the hope that they and their children could live with dignity. Today millions of Hispanics move across the country searching for jobs, from cities to suburbs, from places where they are persecuted or mistreated to others where they can experience the calm of a sunset in the warmth of their home. For millions life is una lucha diaria—an everyday struggle—to move through the structures of our society, often defying the odds, sailing against the winds of irrational biases, and relentlessly taking one day at a time.

 

RECOMMENDED READING

Hispanic Ministry in Catholic Parishes, by Hosffman Ospino, Our Sunday Visitor, 2015

Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future, edited by Hosffman Ospino, Convivium Press, 2010

Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, by Timothy Matovina, Princeton University Press, 2011

“Making a vocation journey with a Latino young adult,” by Father Robert Juárez, HORIZON, Fall 2008

“Latino diversity: complex but important to vocation ministry,” by Father Gary Riebe-Estrella, S.V.D.,  HORIZON, Winter 2013

 

Vocation ministers cannot ignore these stories about Hispanic Catholics. In those stories and experiences their Christian vocation is fully experienced because God does not call us without those moments that have made us who we are, or without our cultural backgrounds, or without the people with whom we share our lives. In fact vocation for these many families who today are transforming the American Catholic experience is nothing less than God’s calling to prophetically defy sin in its many manifestations, to cross boundaries and witness the life of Christ here and now, to start anew transforming faith communities and social environments, to walk with the hope that Christ truly makes all things new. A culture of vocation among Hispanics incorporates these stories as testimony of what God has done for us. We are those stories. We share those stories with the rest of the ecclesial community. Supporting vocational discernment among Hispanics requires creativity and intentionality to incorporate such stories, the stories of our families, not only at the moment of identifying potential leaders, but throughout the entire process of formation and life-long mentoring.

As I travel around the country listening to my Hispanic sisters and brothers, immigrants and U.S.-born, citizens and unauthorized, rich and poor, doctors and factory workers, young and old, in English, Spanish, and even in Spanglish, it has become evident to me that our church has much work to do to truly understand and sincerely embrace Hispanic families with “their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties”— to draw upon the wonderful words from Gaudium et Spes. In doing so we will be able to affirm the contributions of these families to a culture of vocation.

Investment rather than assimilation

Pastoral policies and practices that promote simplistic calls for “assimilation” (regardless of what is meant by this rather convoluted term); ministerial formation programs in seminaries, universities, houses of formation, and pastoral institutes that fail to bring to the center the historical, cultural, and religious experience of half of all Catholics in the United States, namely Hispanic Catholics; and the lack of investment in Hispanic families, youth, parishes, apostolic movements, and organizations, constitute the perfect recipe for alienating what can be a most abundant source of vocations to single, married, consecrated, and ordained life. This observation about alienation is closely tied to a question I frequently hear: why are there so few vocations to the ordained priesthood and religious life among U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics? (Note: vocations to the permanent diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry are somewhat strong among Hispanics.) This is a big question, and I hope these reflections help pave the way to an initial answer.

I believe that God has been copiously inspiring many vocations to Christian life and service among Hispanic Catholics in the United States for a long while. Evidence of this is the incredible energy among the faithful in parishes, youth groups, and apostolic movements, which cannot be but expressions of the presence of the Holy Spirit stirring the hearts of God’s people here and now. Hispanics by and large remain Catholic—even though about 14 million Hispanic Catholics do not self-identify as such anymore. So the question is not whether God is calling, but whether we are listening! Without truly working with Hispanic families, accompanying them, honoring their stories, healing their wounds, and acknowledging their needs, what kind of vocational ministry can we claim to be doing?  

Let’s turn our attention to Hispanic families now. There is already a culture of vocation there, a very particular one nonetheless, that is waiting to be affirmed and engaged. In order to do this we need to revise some current practices in our vocational ministry as a church. I offer three suggestions.

Increase the focus on U.S.-born HispanicsMost efforts in Hispanic ministry focus on the immigrant population, yet only 39 percent of Hispanics are foreign-born. We need to pay more attention to U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics, without abandoning immigrants of course. That requires significantly more investment.

Develop, rather than import, leaders—Another practice that needs to be revised is the overreliance on foreign-born pastoral leaders. International priests and sisters from Latin America and the Caribbean who work with Hispanic Catholics are a blessing for which we must continue to be grateful. Yet, most are “parachuted” into communities with Hispanic families often without knowing their stories, their cultural realities, their life journeys, their symbols, and often their language—as in the case of intergenerational households, which is the reality for most Hispanic families. It takes a lifetime to learn any of these dynamics. Thus we must invest in fostering vocations to ordained and consecrated life from among the families already living among us as much as possible. This seems to be happening naturally in the case of vocations to single and married life.

Increase access to Catholic education—American Catholicism benefits from an incredible network of Catholic schools and universities, many run and inspired by religious orders. Every type of Catholic vocation is uniquely nurtured in these environments. However, the number of Hispanic children and youth in these institutions is significantly small. We need partnerships to increase Hispanic enrollment in our educational institutions, while envisioning ways to ensure these institutions are strong and will intentionally help Hispanics thrive. This will strengthen the environment for Hispanic youth and young adults to engage in vocational discernment.

These suggestions, along with the rest of my reflections here, are just a beginning. My hope is to encourage vocation directors and pastoral leaders at all levels in our church to engage in a much needed conversation as we envision our ministries within an increasingly Hispanic church. May our conversation bear fruit in religious orders and throughout the church.

 

Hosffman Ospino is an assistant professor of theology and religious education at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He was the principal investigator for the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry (2014) and the National Survey of Catholic Schools Serving Hispanic Families (2015). He speaks and writes widely, focusing on the relationship between faith and culture, with particular attention to U.S. Hispanic Catholics.



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