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Old-time religion


Latino traditions can save the Church in the United States

By Roberto Goizueta

The Catholic Church today is a predominantly Third World church, even within the United States. Indeed, by the end of the decade, a majority of Catholics in this country will be Spanish speaking. As U.S. Catholics go through a period now of disillusionment with their church over recent clerical scandals, they may draw hope from communities within the larger Catholic world that remain vital, growing, and energetic.

Almost half of the world's Catholics today live in Latin America. In fact, counting the U.S. Latino community, fully 50 percent of the world's Catholics are Latino. Overall, about two-thirds of Latinos are Catholic. Of course, within the United States the term "Latino" is artificial; there are Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Hondurans, and so on. Nevertheless they all share characteristics beyond their common language—traits with the potential to influence U.S. Catholicism's future. The two most significant of these are the broad experience of mestizaje or mulataje, racial and cultural mixing; and a tradition of popular Catholicism—a spirituality celebrated with a panoply of religious rituals that lie close to the heart of Latino culture.

To understand popular Catholicism one must first understand how the history of the Catholic faith in Latin America is distinct from its history in the United States. To begin with, the religion that came to Latin America with Christopher Columbus 500 years ago was not Roman Catholicism; prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was simply Christianity. The worldview was distinctly medieval: To be a Christian was not only to hold certain beliefs, but also to have one's identity defined by certain practices—by devotions, by processions, by pilgrimages. Faith absorbed the body and the mind.

With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and particularly with the Council of Trent in 1545-63, confession, or creed, increasingly carried the weight of religious identity. The Catholicism that arrived with the English in Maryland in 1634 was post-Reformation, affected by the threat of Protestantism and by the need to define itself in relation to the reformers.

The Reformation never had the same influence in Spain that it had in northern Europe. Nor would its impact be felt in Latin America for generations, until at least the 19th century.

IN LATIN AMERICA, and among U.S. Latinos, Catholicism is grounded from early childhood in ritual and custom and stories retold. Religious identity is not necessarily limited to creed. Indeed, many Latinos are what is called pluri-confessional. They participate in more than one church and even in more than one religion, simultaneously—behavior incomprehensible to most North Americans. They may attend a Catholic Mass on Sunday and a Baptist Bible study or perhaps even an African ritual on Wednesday. They often cross and recross confessional boundaries to a degree that confounds social scientists and undermines the surveys that portend massive Latino conversions to Protestantism and Evangelicalism.

What's more, Latino popular Catholicism is home-grown, reflecting the cultural and religious variety of Latin America—Catholic, Evangelical, Yoruba, Aztec, indigenous. The famous devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is an example. The lady made her presence known on Mount Tepeyac, the mountain associated with the mother goddess of the Nahuas, the Aztec group to which the witness Juan Diego belonged. She embodies both Christian and Aztec symbols.

For the most part, Latino rituals are preserved and led by the laity, especially lay women. The center of religious life is the home, where one often finds private shrines, or "home altars." In effect, Latino Catholicism embodies the ongoing influence of a "domestic church." Often a grandmother becomes the religious leader of the home and of the community. There is a practical reason for this: Latin Americans have for generations suffered a shortage of native priests. Even today, on a continent that is two-thirds Catholic, the majority of Latin American priests are foreign born.

Latino popular Catholicism is not an alternative to the institutional Church or the sacramental life. Indeed, its practices and symbolism depend on the formal faith. Nonetheless, Latino Catholicism poses a major challenge to the U.S. Catholic Church in how to value and how to integrate popular lay practices into the life of the parish and the sacramental Church.

Among U.S. Catholics, there is ingrained resistance. Rituals like the Good Friday procession, where the community reenacts Jesus' Passion and accompanies him to Calvary, look an awful lot like the Italian, German, and Polish celebrations of Catholicism that immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents of today's Catholics practiced publicly and at home. Their popular religion was derided in the predominantly Protestant culture, which interpreted such devotions as reflecting an immature or infantile faith. To assimilate, European Catholics had to let go of those customs.

WHEN GERMAN Catholics came to this country, they brought their priests with them and set up German Catholic parishes. They had a place they could go to pray in their language, to participate in their religious practices, to teach their children their cultural heritage; and a base from which they could move out into society fortified by the bonds of community. Because of the priest shortage in Latin America, that is not the case with Latino Catholics. For the most part, Latino Catholics come into this country and into existing parishes to fend for themselves. Nourished by traditions rooted in the home, many Latinos become invisible to an institutional Church rooted in the parish structure.

About 10 years ago, I lived in Chicago in a neighborhood that was roughly 40 percent Latino. The pastor of the local parish was an Irish priest, a wonderful man, a deeply spiritual man, but completely unaware that he was surrounded by hundreds of Latino Catholics to whom he was offering little. When I asked him if he would think about providing a Spanish Mass or reaching out in some other way to Latinos, he seemed befuddled. He truly believed there was no Latino presence within the parish boundaries, until I brought the census statistics to him and said, "Look, they're here. They're just not coming to church, and they're not registered in the parish"—the idea of registering in a parish is new to most Latinos.

THERE'S A SENSE among Latinos that the Masses and liturgies in most U.S. parishes are cold, internalized affairs. (It's why many start attending Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.) Among the contributions that Latino Catholics can make to the U.S. Church of the 21st century is to restore and keep alive the role of religious practices, of physical expressions of faith, as a way of conforming to Jesus Christ. We don't become Catholic simply through the head, any more than we can hope to pass the faith on to the next generation individually and intellectually. It's important that we eat together, that we pray together, that we walk publicly together. And if the physical dimensions of popular religion are important, so, too, is the communal dimension. Whether it's the family, the neighborhood, the Church, or the communion of saints, community defines us, makes us who we are. We're not just isolated, autonomous individuals.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation entitled Ecclesia in America (Church in America). In it, he maintained that Catholics ought to "reflect on America"—North America, Central America, and South America—"as a single entity." And in fact, when the Vatican issues statistics on Catholicism worldwide, it combines the Americas into one demographic unit. As we work through the challenges facing the Church in the United States today, I hope that we move toward a more inclusive Church community, one that embraces a vital American Catholicism of faith and action.

Roberto Goizueta is a professor of theology at Boston College. His essay is drawn from a talk delivered on April 14, 2004, in Devlin Hall on "The New Faces of Christianity."


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