From the Bishops Hispanic Ministry

It is obvious, even to the most causal observer, that the number of Hispanic Catholics in our country is increasing dramatically. Alabama is no exception to this national trend. It is estimated by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University that most Catholics in the U.S. under the age of 20 are Hispanic. As the number of Hispanic Catholics increases, our parishes must attend to the pastoral needs of all Catholics including those who are Hispanic.

This is nothing new for the Catholic Church in the United States. Throughout our American Catholic history, the Catholic Church has sought to meet the spiritual and physical needs of all the members of the Church, regardless of background.

Often this has been a challenge for the Church, especially during those times when some ethnic groups were met with hostility. In the middle of the 19th century, for example, there was bitter resentment in our country towards the Irish Catholics. A new political movement formed named the Know-Nothings. This group became very influential in many parts of our country, both North and South. In their opposition to the Irish, they threatened the Catholic Church with bitter opposition and threats of violence. The Know- Nothings rose to power even in Mobile where their brief period of control is a dark chapter in Alabama history.

But the Church was not deterred from its duty, based upon the teaching of Jesus, to minister to those in need. As Jesus taught, on the last day, when we stand before our Father, God will ask of us: "When I was as stranger, did you welcome me?" And Jesus told us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers we do for him.

Thousands of Irish Catholics settled in the South, including Alabama, during the 1800’s. They ultimately became part of the fabric of the South. (Remember that the fictional Scarlet O’Hara was an Irish Catholic.) Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts, the limitation of resources and the small number of available priests prevented the Catholic Church from meeting the pastoral needs of these new arrivals. The result was that many Irish Catholics drifted away from the Catholic Church.

Now history is repeating itself. Large numbers of Hispanic Catholics are settling in the South, and again, Alabama is no exception to this influx. The Catholic Church must do better this time in meeting the pastoral needs of our brother and sister Catholics.

For this reason, our parishes must find ways to welcome Hispanic neighbors. If Hispanics feel marginalized in the Catholic Church, it is only natural that they will look elsewhere for a church that will welcome them and treat them with dignity. The Catholic Church is a diverse Church. Our diversity can be a great source of strength. Yet the challenge is to have both diversity and unity. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "...that there should be no division among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose." (1 Cor 1:10)

In the past, it has often been the practice of the Catholic Church, particularly in urban areas, to establish separate parishes for each immigrant group. This allowed people to continue to worship in the language of their childhood even as they learned the English language. No matter how well a new language is learned, people usually prefer to pray in the language of their childhood. Somehow, it is very important for us to be able to pray in the language that our parents first taught us our prayers.

(Two reflections on this tendency: First, I remember a lady in a parish where I served years ago who, when she came to confession, would confess in perfect English with hardly an accent but then would pray her act of contrition in her native Czech language in which she first learned her prayers many years before. Second, in a story on TV about the W.W.II Battle of the Bulge, accounts of infiltrators passing through American lines was recalled. These saboteurs spoke flawless English. The GI’s would attempt to discover the identity of the infiltrators by asking questions about Hollywood "Who has the best legs in the movies?" or questions about sports "Who won the world’s series?" or would ask "Pray the Our Father." Usually an infiltrator would lapse into German, the language in which he first learned that prayer.)

Although national parishes have served an important purpose in ministering to ethnic groups, history has shown that usually only the first one or two generations attended these churches. As families assimilated into American culture, they tended to go to parishes everyone else attended and abandoned the ethnic parish.

Due to this experience with previous groups, as well as the limited numbers of priests and Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Mobile, as well as the great differences of rapid assimilation among Hispanics, it appears that the best approach in our archdiocese is not to try to build national churches, but to welcome the Hispanic into our existing parishes.

Already more than 20 of our Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Mobile celebrate a Mass in the Spanish language. This is highly commendable. However, it is not sufficient only to have a Mass for those who wish to pray in Spanish and nothing further. Hispanic Catholics need to be part of parish life in as many ways as possible. Parishes need to examine and discover ways in which this can be done. This will not necessarily be easy. There are differences in language and culture and activities which appeal to one group may not appeal to another. Nonetheless, efforts must be made to build unity in the midst of diversity. Perhaps there are ways in which Hispanic religious education for children can interrelate with other religious education programs. Parishes need to include Hispanics as part of parish celebrations, fairs, anniversaries, and other moments of parish life. Hispanics need to be a part of parish organizations. Where Hispanic Catholics are present, they need to be included in Parish Pastoral Councils. In short, Hispanic Catholics need to be viewed as part of the parish and not as a separate group which has "their" Mass and is somehow separate from everything else that happens in the parish.

To fully accomplish this will take time, mutual understanding, and Christian concern for one another. But it must begin. It cannot be postponed. We owe it to the future of the Catholic Church in Alabama to make certain that we heed the teachings of the Lord and welcome all into the community of faith which is our Catholic parish.

Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Mobile.

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