Written by Timothy Matovina
Many parishes and dioceses tend to focus on the challenges presented by the growing Hispanic presence. This is not surprising; a previous influx of Catholic newcomers to the United States was met with a similar attitude. Yet in the 2002 document Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said,
Hispanic Catholics are a blessing from God and a prophetic presence that has transformed many dioceses and parishes into more welcoming, vibrant, and evangelizing faith communities. (6)
Understanding the history of Hispanic Catholicism will strengthen our appreciation of this population and serve as a foundation for a stronger spirit of communion in the Church.
Catholics of Spanish descent have lived their faith in the United States for twice as long as the nation has existed. The first diocese in the New World was established in 1511 at San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is now a commonwealth of the United States. Subjects of the Spanish crown founded the first permanent European settlement within the current borders of the continental U.S. at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. In 1598 in present-day El Paso, Texas, Spanish subjects established a permanent foundation of Catholicism in what is now the Southwest United States.
However, the role of Hispanic Catholics isn’t merely important because of their long history in U.S. territories. They’re also important because of their significant contributions to the Catholic Church and society as a whole.
Hispanics founded one of the most influential retreat movements in the country—the Cursillos de Cristiandad (Short Courses in Christianity), which was established by Eduardo Bonnín and other Spanish laymen in 1944 in Majorca, Spain. In 1957, two countrymen assigned to a military base in Waco, Texas, in collaboration with Father Gabriel Fernández, led the first American Cursillos weekend retreat. Four years later, Cursillos team members from previous Spanish-language weekends led the first English-language Cursillos.
By the following year, weekend retreats had spread to locales such as San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Newark, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Boston. Over the next two decades, nearly every diocese in the United States introduced Cursillos. In 1980 a worldwide international office, the Organismo Mundial de Cursillos de Cristiandad, was established.
As Cursillos spread, other retreat programs that closely emulated its core dynamics emerged, including Teens Encounter Christ; Search and its Spanish counterpart, Búsqueda; Kairos; Christ Renews His Parish; and the Protestant Walk to Emmaus and youth-oriented Chrysalis retreats. The movement impacted millions of Catholics from a variety of backgrounds as well as Protestants, and it has become one of the most influential spiritual-renewal movements in U.S. history.
Devotions and Public Ritual
Hispanic devotions to Mary have also enhanced the spiritual lives of Catholics and other Americans. Around 1620, St. Augustine settlers built the first Marian shrine in what is now the continental United States, Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Nursing Mother of Happy Delivery).
Even non-Catholics join in Hispanic public rituals. After the San Fernando Cathedral Way of the Cross procession through downtown San Antonio, Baptist minister Buckner Fanning attested, “When I walked behind Jesus on the Way of the Cross, I wondered what I would have done had I been there. The people of San Fernando drew me into the passion and put me right there with Jesus.”
Hispanic leaders rightly contend that their practices provide a model for public worship in a society that often emphasizes individual spiritual quests and the “privatization” of religion. In a March 28, 1997, article in the Los Angeles Times, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame, reinforces this ideology: “The Latinos’ love for public ritual is a contribution we make to American society. I think there is a hunger for it in American life. It lets you enter into the power of a collective experience.”
Another contribution of the Hispanic population is their pioneering influence on the faith-based model of community organizing. The first predominantly Hispanic faith-based community organization, San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), played a key role in rooting the model of community organizing more deeply in local congregations and the faith of their members. Beginning in 1973, organizer Ernie Cortés worked with lay leaders and priests to establish COPS among ethnic Mexican parishes in the working-class neighborhoods. As Hispanic Catholics, they also infused organizing with the faith of their core leaders—parishioners who perceive their activism as an extension of their commitment to God, Church, family, and neighborhood.
With the support of the USCCB, which has provided more funding for faith-based community organizations than all other religious contributors combined, COPS’s approach of building a community organization on the foundation of parishes and the faith of their leaders has been extended to a number of community organizations. These nonpartisan organizations now total some 200 and exist in nearly every state. They’ve enabled numerous Catholics to bring their faith as credence on the decisions and policies that shape their local communities.
Recognition of the Hispanic Contribution
The contributions and holiness of a growing number of Hispanics have been recognized through the process for their canonization. Pope John Paul II beatified Carlos Manuel Cecilio -Rodríguez Santiago (1918–1963) in 2001, advancing him to the final stage before canonization. Blessed Carlos is known in his native Puerto Rico for his virtue, love of the liturgy, and commitment to teaching others about the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. One of his admirers remembers him as an “ordinary man who dedicated his time to teach the name and ways of Jesus Christ.” Blessed Carlos is the first layperson born in U.S. territories to be beatified.
In 2012, Father Félix Varela y Morales (1788–1853) was declared venerable, the step in the process toward beatification. When the Spanish regime exiled him in 1823 because of his support for Cuban independence, he fled to New York and worked as a parish priest before becoming diocesan vicar general. He is recognized for his dedicated pastoral service to the Irish and other immigrants in New York as well as a forerunner of Cuban pro-independence thought.
In 2008, Bishop Alphonse -Gallegos, OAR (1931–1991), was declared a Servant of God, an initial step toward canonization. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he joined the Augustinian Recollects and served as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Sacramento for the last decade of his life. His cause for sainthood was opened fourteen years after he was killed, struck by a car while trying to push his stalled vehicle off the road.
Two priests renowned as founders of missions in the colonial Southwest are also in the process of canonization: Blessed Junípero Serra, OFM (1713–1784), of California; and Venerable Antonio Margil de Jesús, OFM (1657–1726), in Texas.
Canonization causes are also active for Eusebio Kino, SJ (1645–1711), in Arizona; and Blessed Diego de Luis de San Vitores, SJ (1627–1672), for his work on the island of Guam.
Many other Hispanics who served with great fervor but haven’t received official recognition are remembered for their holiness and leadership. Eulalia Pérez moved to Mission San Gabriel (near Los Angeles) with her husband around 1800. After his death, Pérez became the head housekeeper, a leadership position that grew increasingly significant as the number of friars decreased. Her duties included managing supplies and supervising Native American workers. As the lay overseer of the mission community’s daily life, she proved to be an extraordinary lay leader long before this type of leadership was widely acknowledged.
Another laywoman, Puerto Rican Encarnación Padilla de Armas (d. 1992), arrived in New York City in 1945 as a widow with a young son and $150. She met Jesuit priest Joseph Fitzpatrick and shared her concern about the weak Catholic response to Protestant proselytizing efforts among Puerto Ricans. Fitzpatrick asked her to write a report on the situation, promising to deliver it personally to Francis Cardinal Spellman. In 1951, Padilla de Armas and a small group of Puerto Rican women prepared the report, which led to the 1953 establishment of the first Spanish Catholic Action Office in the Archdiocese of New York. Padilla de Armas later became the national coordinator for the first national Encuentro of Hispanic ministry leaders in the United States (1972).
A Unified Body of Faith
Since the early 1990s, the dispersion of Hispanics across the United States has brought them into unprecedented levels of contact with fellow Catholics—some in dioceses and parishes where a significant Hispanic presence is new, others where the Hispanic presence is long-standing. Latinos and fellow Catholics encounter not just unfamiliar customs and languages, but also profound historical convergences that intensify everyday experiences. The result: trust or apprehension, collaboration or isolation.
The election of Pope Francis as our first Holy Father from the New World has drawn further attention to the gifts Latino Catholics offer the Church. Appreciating the history and contributions of Hispanics and all other Catholic groups will enable us to make great strides in our heritage as a Catholic Church—a Church that embraces all God’s people in a unified body of faith.