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Good News: Many Hispanic Catholics. Challenge: To Meet Their Spiritual Needs

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A Boston College study on Hispanic Ministry in Catholic Parishes released May 5 offers good news and a challenge.

The number of Hispanic Catholics has dramatically increased, both among new immigrants and the 60-70 percent of the Hispanic community who are non-immigrants and having children. The practice of Catholicism by U.S. Hispanics has never been higher, but the needs of this huge community require the Church to do more.

One step by the Catholic Church has been to increase the number of priests and religious who speak Spanish so they can minister to the Hispanic community. Some seminaries now require study of Spanish to facilitate such work.

There's been an increase in the number of Hispanic deacons who work in parishes. Today about 15 percent of active permanent deacons are Hispanic. Many dioceses have Hispanic offices to oversee efforts. The next step is to educate parishes on cultural sensitivity as people of all backgrounds come together into one parish community.

We see advances in Hispanic lay leadership and right now 43 percent of the more than 22,500 lay people in church leadership formation programs are Hispanic.

Hispanic bishops now lead major dioceses. They include the head of the largest archdiocese in the United States, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez, a native of Mexico. Others include Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio; Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, and Bishop Cirilo Flores of San Diego.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a strategy to increase the number of Hispanic seminarians and priests. There is a significant gap between the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. who are Hispanic (35 percent) and the number of Hispanic seminarians (16 percent) and Hispanic priests (6 percnt). The bishops' Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations (CCLV) set as a goal to increase the numbers of Hispanic and new religious by 25 percent by 2016.

The Committee on Catholic Education is exploring ways to increase the number of Hispanics in Catholic schools, the natural venue for developing future Catholic leaders. In Latin America, Catholic schools are seen as private schools for the elite. Changing that mindset is one challenge. Making the schools affordable is the next.

Almost a quarter of the nation's 18,000 parishes have Hispanic ministry. These parishes are not just in the South and Southwest, where most Hispanic ministry began, but now are throughout the nation.

Another factor influences Hispanic ministry, however. It may be the greatest challenge of all: the reality that the United States has become a secular society. Pollsters even have a category called "none" when you check a box for religious affiliation. Everyone, including Hispanics, and especially young ones, can fall prey to what has become a new American problem, religious relativism, where, perhaps inspired by exciting music or a rousing preacher, you move from your parents' church to another to no church at all. That's the climate in which we are forming our youth, the future of the Catholic Church and U.S. society. It is scary to consider that religious relativism may be the greatest threat that exists to the increasingly important Hispanic Catholic community.