May 5, 2014

Boston College releases report on study of ministry to Hispanic Catholics



(CNS file photo/Dennis Downey, The Catholic Times)

By Ed Hayward

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The explosive growth of Hispanic Catholics is overwhelming the Catholic Church in America, which is at risk of losing an ethnic group crucial to the future of the church in the U.S., according to a landmark Boston College study of Hispanic Catholic parishes in the United States. The report was released today.

Hispanics comprise 31.2 million of America’s 78 million Catholics and their growing ranks are rapidly transforming parishes in fundamental ways, according to the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry, led by Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Assistant Professor Hosffman Ospino.

“There are already predictions about the death of the parish in America,” said Ospino. “If we fail to address the issues facing Hispanic Catholics and the parishes that serve them, then the parish structure in America will dramatically decline as it did in Europe.”

The burgeoning Hispanic Catholic community is challenging parishes in areas of education, language, geography and ministry, according to Ospino.

There are 4,368 Catholic parishes with some form of organized ministry to Hispanics – accounting for nearly one in every four Catholic parishes in the U.S. But these parishes, led predominantly by white priests and pastoral leaders nearing retirement age, will see leadership turnover at a rate four times greater than the wider church, Ospino said. The survey points to a need for programs to prepare Hispanic priests and church leaders.

“A new generation of Hispanic leaders in the church is emerging,” said Ospino. “The question is: is the Catholic Church ready for this? Will the structure of the American Catholic Church allow them to succeed? As it stands now, my answer is no.”

(CNS file photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

The survey found the demand for services at parishes with Hispanic ministry exceeds available resources on a scale never before seen by the Catholic Church, which is renowned for its social services. By comparison, Ospino noted, the influx of 40 million Hispanic immigrants during the past 50 years is 10 times greater than the rate of Irish immigration from 1860-1960. The church needs to develop a strategic plan to welcome and serve this predominantly Catholic ethnic group in the U.S. or risk alienating them, Ospino said.

“The secularization of Hispanics is the biggest threat to the future of the Catholic Church in America,” said Ospino. “Only 10 percent of Hispanic Catholic children attend Catholic schools and fewer and fewer Hispanics under 30 attend church. We run the risk of losing a whole generation of Catholics.”

Yet pastoral leaders serving Hispanic Catholics continue to oversee their ministry with few resources. Parishes with Hispanic ministry as well as dioceses need to assign the highest priority to the development of sound strategies to invest in the evangelization of Hispanic Catholics, Ospino noted.

The changes are shifting the geographic balance of influence for the Catholic Church in America, according to the study, conducted in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. While 61 percent of all Catholic parishes are currently located in the Midwest and Northeast, the fast-growing Hispanic population is taking hold in the South and West, where 61 percent of parishes with Hispanic ministry are now located. The Midwest and Northeast are home to just 39 percent of churches with Hispanic ministry.

The findings point to a need for Catholic Church leadership in America to recognize the distinct needs of parishes with Hispanic ministry and to shift personnel and resources accordingly.

“About one-in-five pastoral leaders serving Hispanic Catholics in major ministerial positions in parishes and dioceses are unpaid,” said Ospino. “While clergy and vowed religious count on established support networks, a significant number of these unpaid leaders are lay women and men. Parishes and dioceses need to urgently attend to questions of fair compensation and parity with non-Hispanic ministries.”

The full study is here. For more information, visit the School of Theology and Ministry website.

  • Hayward is associate director of the Boston College Office of News and Public Affairs.