When 1,680 Hispanic Catholic young adults were sent by their parishes and dioceses to Notre Dame University in the summer of 2006 as delegates to the First National Encuentro for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry, the future leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States appeared to be in very good hands. Their dedication to the challenging task of developing a common vision for their ministry; their joyful enthusiasm for proclaiming and celebrating their faith; and their articulateness in both naming the obstacles they face and describing strategies to overcome them—all of these demonstrated that young Hispanics are poised and ready to answer the Catholic Church’s call to ministry in the 21st century and beyond.
A crisis in Hispanic leadership for the Catholic Church in the U.S.
Appearances notwithstanding, the reality is that professional Hispanic leadership in our Church is in a state of crisis, and has been for some time. Latino/as are underrepresented in every category of pastoral leadership, as shown in the following table:
A recent update to the priest-to-laity ratios on our Fast Facts page, based on worldwide data from 2010 published in the 2013 Catholic Almanac, shows that priestly vocations in Latin America currently surpass those among Hispanics in the United States by a factor of two. The major culprit in this challenge is the abysmal priest-to-laity ratio among U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics:
Priest-to-laity Ratios in 2010
Ratio of Priests to Catholic Laity in U.S.
Ratio of Priests to Catholic Laity in Europe
Ratio of Priests to Catholic Laity in Asia
Ratio of Priests to Catholic Laity in Africa
Ratio of Priests to Catholic Laity in Latin America
Ratio of Hispanic Priests to Hispanic Catholics in U.S.
Ratio of U.S.-born Hispanic Priests to U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics
1 to 1,750
1 to 1,500
1 to 2,250
1 to 4,950
1 to 5,300
1 to 11,000
1 to 29,000
If Hispanics such as the young leaders at the National Encuentro are to take their place among the women and men religious, the priests and deacons, and the lay ecclesial ministers now serving in Catholic parishes, dioceses, schools, and other ministries across the country, they will have to overcome multiple challenges along the way:
- Young adult Hispanics (ages 18 to 30) are 60% less likely than their non-Hispanic peers to have a college degree, and 26% of them have not even completed high school.
- About 44% of the young adult Hispanics in our Church are immigrants, and while exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that more than half of them do not have legal immigration papers.
- Most seminary and graduate-level ministry training programs, as well as religious communities, are struggling to attract and support Hispanic candidates—especially U.S.-born Hispanics, who make up more than 80% of all Latino/a Catholics under the age of 25.
Given these obstacles, the question for vocation directors in dioceses and religious congregations becomes: what can church leaders do today to ensure that Hispanics are well-represented among Catholic clergy, religious, and lay ministers in the future?
Findings from the First National Encuentro
As a means to gain insight into this question, the National Encuentro provided an ideal opportunity to ask Latino/a young adults regarding their attitudes and concerns about religious life and careers in ministry. With financial support from the Sisters of Saint Francis in Tiffin, OH, Instituto Fe y Vida was able to survey nearly half of the young adult leaders that participated in this national event.
The Encuentro survey probed the young leaders to reflect on their attitudes and experiences with respect to religious life and the priesthood. They most frequently cited the following aspects of these ministries as being attractive to them, in order of precedence:
- being able to help other people, especially those in greatest need
- answering God’s call with complete devotion and commitment
- carrying out the mission of the Church through evangelization and pastoral work
- leading a life of deep personal spirituality and humility
At the same time, the delegates acknowledged that there would be significant obstacles to overcome if they felt called to become a brother, sister, or priest. Some common concerns related to language ability and immigration status, academic level, economic challenges, a sense of personal unworthiness, and loneliness. However, the most common concern (identified by 17% of the respondents) was the requirement of celibacy, which for some would mean breaking off an important personal relationship. The next most common concern (9%) was that they would have to leave family and friends—a perception that reflects the value of family ties among Hispanics.
Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to conclude that family relationships and personal friendships are only an obstacle to religious vocations among young Hispanic leaders. In fact, when the respondents were asked who, if anyone, had ever encouraged them to consider a religious vocation, 21% stated that a friend had done so, 8% identified their parents, and another 6% mentioned other family members. Only priests (23%) were identified more often. Thus, family members and friends can be important allies of vocations directors who are seeking to foster religious vocations among young Latino/as.
Implications for the development of Hispanic religious vocations
Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle many Latino/a Catholics face when responding to a call to ministry in the Catholic Church is their education—immigrants and U.S.-born Hispanics alike need more support from the Church if they are to complete a college degree and thereby become a candidate for professional ministerial training. A significant number also needs assistance in obtaining the necessary legal documents to study and/or work in the United States. These are enormous challenges that must be addressed both at the personal level (one case at a time), and by marshalling the resources of the Catholic Church to bring about changes within our society as a whole.
At the same time, vocations directors have to acknowledge that the challenging educational and immigration status of many dedicated Hispanic Catholics will not be resolved overnight. In the mean time, there is much that priests and religious communities can already do to empower young Latino/as to take up the call to ministry in the Church. For example:
- Foster the growth of the ecclesial movements and grupos juveniles (Hispanic young adult groups) by providing a gathering place, leadership training, and continuous pastoral guidance in parishes, convents, and other alternative sites.
- Build personal relationships with the leaders of the movements and groups; encourage them to consider a religious vocation, and ask them to identify others they might personally invite to do the same.
- When developing promotional materials for religious vocations, emphasize the four aspects the Hispanic young people identified as most appealing.
- Provide a living example of the same four aspects, as well as a commitment to working with the Hispanic community in faith formation, leadership training, pastoral accompaniment, and advocacy for educational and immigration reform.
- Create forums in which Hispanic young adults can discuss the need for religious vocations with their peers and/or their families, encouraging them to find creative ways to overcome obstacles on their path to a life in ministry.
- Whenever possible, send Hispanic candidates to formation centers where they will have the opportunity to develop relationships of mutual support with other Latino/as of a similar linguistic and cultural background.
- Develop partnerships with seminaries and religious communities in Latin America so that immigrant young adults can prepare for ministry while working to overcome the obstacles of immigration status, language ability, and/or educational attainment.
The bottom line is that if the Catholic Church would like to capitalize on the religious dedication and fervor demonstrated by the Hispanic delegates at the First National Encuentro, it must invest in them, in their families, and in the Hispanic community as a whole. This entails a serious commitment to stand in solidarity with Hispanic Catholics in their struggle to secure a high-quality education for their children, a safe living environment in their neighborhoods, and to establish immigration policies that respect their dignity and human rights in accordance with Church teaching. At the same time, the Church must embrace their spiritual traditions and provide faith formation, leadership training, and pastoral care that are accessible and congruent with their culture, language, and lived experience. Doing these things well will create the relational bonds between religious leaders and the Hispanic faithful that provide fertile ground for religious and ministerial vocations to grow.
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