Ministry seeks to build community and empower young Latinos

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Vicente del Real, a Catholic from Chicago, was recently helping to facilitate a young adult gathering at a parish in his area. The pastor walked in and said to one of the attendees that he should go to seminary.

“The young adult replies to him: ‘Father, do you know my name?’” Vicente recalled. 

The priest went red— he didn’t. 

“What do you know about what is good for me if you don't even know my name?” the young man wondered to himself. 

Del Real said the story really illustrates, for him, a problem experienced in Catholicism in the US. He worries that, as he sees it, there’s too much talk out there about truly getting to know and ministering to young people, Latinos in particular, and not enough actually doing it. 

“I wish that we did less talking in the Church about working with young people in general, and more actually working with people in general,” he told CNA.

“I think we often talk about: how do we engage young people? How do we give them leadership? How do we empower them? I think we also need to give them agency, we need to give us a space for them to exercise leadership.”

Del Real, 31, was born and raised in Mexico, arriving in the United States at age 15. Although he remained strong in the Catholic faith he received from his parents, statistics suggest that many of his peers are moving away from a strong practice of the Catholic faith. 

According to 2014 Pew research, at least a quarter of U.S. Hispanics have left the Catholic Church, and of those, nearly half are now unaffiliated when it comes to religion. Other Pew studies suggest that only 16% of U.S. Hispanics say being Catholic is an essential part of Hispanic identity.

It’s undeniable that the Catholic Church in the United States— and the United States in general— is becoming more and more Latino. Statistics from the Pew Research Center suggest that it is possible that in the not too distant future, a majority of U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic— even though the majority of Hispanics will likely no longer be Catholic.

Nurturing conviction

Del Real is the founder of a ministry for young Latinos, called Iskali. The group organizes retreats, small groups, formation opportunities, mentorships, and scholarships, all to support the faith of young Latinos. Through its programs, Iskali tries to encourage Latino youth to seek a personal encounter with Christ, and then take that faith and live it out in the context of small groups and their broader community. 

Del Real says many Latino children of immigrants growing up in the United States do not have the same rooted Catholic culture or devotions that their parents may have had, and thus it is important to nurture a “conviction” within young Latinos to live out their faith. 

Edgar de la Cerda, who now works with Vicente at Iskali, was born in Mexico and grew up in the US. He said the community groups provided by Iskali helped to lead him back to an active practice of his Catholic faith. He said it was very helpful to him to find people his age, young Latinos in a similar stage in life, who were willing and eager to talk about matters of faith.

“It just starts with inviting our own friends, inviting them to community, inviting them to Mass and giving them that experience of what the faith really is,” he said. 

Del Real is particularly excited about Iskali’s mentorship program, which seeks to support young Latinos as they head off to college, many of whom, like Vicente himself, are first-generation college students. 

“I couldn't go to my parents with questions about scholarships, with questions about careers, because my dad went to second grade and my mom went to third grade,” he said. 

“I feel that we are missing a support system since most of these Latinos that are registered into college are first generation. I feel that we are missing a support system for them to make it through college. So here at Iskali we provide a mentorship program... to provide mentors that can accompany those young Latinos that are first generation students through their years of college.”

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“No one else is gonna do it better than they themselves”

Young Latinos face pretty much the same challenges to their faith that all young people do. The distractions of social media; trendy, secular influences from influencers, the media, and Hollywood; and occasionally a language barrier, though it may not be what you might have expected.

Already more than half of all Masses celebrated in the US are in Spanish, Del Real said. But, to reach young Latinos, particularly those born in the United States, it’s not as simple a matter as offering more Masses in Spanish. 

“The challenge is that most of us younger Latinos prefer actually to speak in English. So when they go to a Spanish Mass, they might not even understand the priest,” he noted. 

It presents a quandary. Young Latinos may understand the language better at a typical parish where the Masses are all in English, but there’s a cultural difference, in addition to a language difference.

Marcos Martinez, who works with Vicente, is one of many young Latinos who prefers to speak English, since it’s his native language— he was born in the US, but his parents emigrated from Mexico. Interestingly though, he says sometimes young Latinos who are first-generation Americans have had the faith passed down to them almost exclusively in Spanish. 

“We speak English fluently, and it's sometimes our preferred language. But I also see that actually there's a lot of people in our communities who, who only know our faith in Spanish, who don't know certain Catholic prayers in English,” Martinez said. 

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Including Latinos in the parish’s leadership and decision making, in order to find ways to make young Latinos feel included in each parish’s particular context, is a good start, he said. 

Del Real said he wants to see more investment in young Latinos in the US; parishes putting their money where their mouths are, and actually trusting their young Latino members with leadership roles and resources. 

“If we want to properly serve Latinos, no one else is gonna do it better than they themselves,” he said. 

“We need to give them a space for them to bring their own ideas. A lot of these ideas that young people have are very innovative about how to present the Gospel.”

Martinez said trusting young people with leadership positions will help them become leaders not only in a Church context, but in life in general, helping them gain transferable skills that will benefit young people in the long run. 

“We put the power in their hands and give them leadership roles to be able to go and honestly, to go and make mistakes sometimes, and to learn from them, to be the ones who are leading our communities...and being able to gain some of those skills and not even realize it, when it comes to public speaking, community organizing, event planning.”

Martinez said allowing Latinos to bring their own ideas and lead their own groups can make the faith more appealing for their peers. 

“I think sometimes in society, we can be dubious of people without experience, or thinking of young people as being naive. And I think that there's so many missed opportunities when it comes to the fear of making a mistake, or taking a risk, trying something different, trying something unconventional. And I think that's something that we've been able to really embrace is our lack of experience, and also a fresh perspective,” he said. 

“And it's really a profound experience when you see young people...seeing young men go up and kind of share their faith, share some of their struggles, was really powerful for me. 

De la Cerda says he wants to see the Church in general listen to young people, because if young people don’t feel like their ideas or concerns are being listened to, they’re more likely to distance themselves. 

“A lot of times young people don't necessarily feel like they're listened to by the Church, because most of the people in leadership are a lot older than they are so naturally there's a big generational gap. And like I personally really feel that young people have a lot to learn from older generations, but at the same time, I feel that we have a lot to offer as well,” he said. 

Del Real said he hopes that everyone will take to heart the need to welcome and include Latinos in their parishes. 

“This is something that the whole Body of Christ needs to do together,” he urged. 

“All of us, you and I, we can be part of the renewal of the Church. We can be part of welcoming, acknowledging, celebrating young people in the Church, celebrating young Latinos in the church, by acknowledging their presence, embracing their presence, knowing their names.” 

A version of this story appeared on the latest episode of the CNA Newsroom podcast. Click here to listen to the story. 

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