Latin America

Unity in Diversity: A New Momentum for the Church in the U.S.

Omnes-April 11, 2018-Reading time: 8 minutes

Mar Muñoz-Visoso points out that the growth of the Hispanic community in the United States is making parishes culturally diverse. Ethnic and cultural diversity, always a challenge, is a richness for the Church in that country. 

TEXT - Mar Muñoz-Visoso
Executive Director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Catholic Church in the United States has always been very diverse. Since Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in Florida in 1565 in the enclave known as St. Augustine and established the first Catholic parish in continuous existence in what is now the United States, successive waves of Catholics from diverse backgrounds and cultures, some immigrants and others born here, have kept the flame of faith alive and passed the torch to new generations.

Historically, geopolitical and social changes have influenced and, at times, determined who should take the lead in establishing local Churches, missions and dioceses, or creating the structures necessary to make possible the work of the Church in a given period. While that remains true today, the Catholic Church in the United States is at a crossroads, a time of transition or, as it were, in a "crisis of growth."


In terms of numbers, Catholics have become in recent years the largest religious group in the country compared to what used to be a Protestant majority. Paradoxically, the second largest group is not another church or Christian denomination but the "unaffiliated". These are not necessarily in all cases atheists, but individuals who do not identify with a particular religious group or "denomination," although some of them claim to believe in God or to be spiritual people. A significant number of them are Catholics who have drifted away from the Church, according to recent surveys. And among them are a growing number of Latinos.

On the other hand, the Church's leadership in this country has also realized that its demographic base-those who are affiliated, whether or not they are practicing members-has changed considerably, both in its ethnic and cultural composition and in its geographic location. On the one hand, the Church is growing in the south and west of the country, where there has been a significant increase in population in recent years due to immigration and job opportunities. In these places the Church has a young, dynamic, and very diverse face, with a growing Latino flavor. At the same time, some dioceses and religious communities are closing or merging parishes and schools in places where the population is decreasing or the community that the parish originally served has disappeared. The lack of vocations and ministers to pastor such parishes is also an important reason.

New models

In some cases, the parish model has also changed. For example, with the disappearance of mass immigration from Europe, the model of "national parishes" led by clergy from the same countries of origin of the communities (Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles, etc.) fell into disuse in the middle of the last century, and although some still remain, they are rare. The integration of successive generations and their emigration to the suburbs has relegated them to nostalgic structures to which they return on special occasions, for patron saint festivals and other special moments. In many cases, these temples were within walking distance of each other and it does not make sense administratively or financially today to keep them all open because it is not a sustainable model. The basis that originated them has simply disappeared and the pastoral and spiritual needs of Catholics residing in the area today can be met from one of them.

In some cases, however, lacking the missionary spirit that once characterized most American parishes, simply no effort has been made to meet, invite and evangelize the new inhabitants of the neighborhood. In other words, the parish that has not evolved with the neighborhood has seen its social and economic base gradually disappear. However, parishes, schools and missions have also been closed, in some cases inexplicably and with great public outrage, in areas of high Catholic and Latino immigration, as well as in poor neighborhoods.

Today, in addition to the normal territorial parishes, some "ethnic" parishes are still established to gather, strengthen and serve some communities - mainly of new Catholic immigrants such as Vietnamese, Koreans and Chinese - when they need services in a language that the local clergy cannot offer, and where the base is large enough to make them sustainable. However, the vast majority are integrated through multicultural parishes that have opened spaces for the pastoral care of a diversity of cultural and linguistic communities. This model is the one that best accommodates the growth and pastoral needs of an already diverse Hispanic community, with a growing presence in both large cities and rural areas of the country. But also to smaller ethnic groups that need specialized attention and would not be able to sustain a parish on their own. It is also, at the end of the day, and despite the complexity that characterizes them, the parish model that best reflects the universality of the church, where that catholicity is embodied and lived in the daily interactions of its parishioners, who reflect the many faces of God's people.

Cultural diversity

The massive growth of the Hispanic community, but also the influx of immigrants from many other parts of the world, is transforming once monolithic and monolingual North American parishes into culturally diverse communities that come together under one roof and share pastor, space, structures and resources. And where they also learn to share responsibility for the facilities, resources and support of the parish. Certainly the diversity of experiences requires education processes for all communities, and particularly for parish staff and leadership.

Living together is sometimes challenging, as mutual acceptance and integration of communities does not happen overnight. The vision, ecclesiology and expectations of different cultural groups regarding the functioning of the parish and the role of the pastor and his team can vary significantly and cause serious differences or at times bring them into conflict. However, where an integrative and inclusive - not "assimilationist" - process based on welcome and reconciliation has been put in place, the different ways of working and expressing faith and "being Church" are seen as an expression of the universality of the Church, reflecting the deeply ecclesial and Trinitarian concept of "unity in diversity", where a spirit of communion, solidarity and mission prevails.


Faced with the growing reality of multicultural parishes, the U.S. bishops have taken on the difficult task of promoting intercultural training for clergy, religious and the many lay people who, in this ecclesial reality, occupy leadership positions (directors of evangelization and catechesis, youth ministry, liturgical music, social services, parish administration and others).

Interculturality" refers to the ability to communicate, relate and work with people from a culture different from one's own. These intercultural skills require the development of new knowledge and skills, and new attitudes of openness, listening, patience and curiosity towards what the other has to offer. These abilities are not random, nor external to the mission of the Church, but intrinsic and necessary to the process of evangelization and catechesis. It is understood that one cannot properly preach, teach and form others in the faith without attending to the ways in which faith and identity are embodied in a culture.

Ethnic and cultural diversity has always been a richness for the Church in this country. The Hispanic presence is by no means a new phenomenon. Hispanics have been present and have been protagonists in the evangelization of many peoples in territories such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, coastal Louisiana, and Florida, even before these were territories of the American Union. Although the Spanish and Mexican influence waned over the years and geopolitical changes, the new migratory waves of the second half of the 20th century - largely from Mexico and Latin America - refocused attention on the needs, but also the contributions of the Hispanic people to the North American Church and society.

Today, the undeniable weight of numbers makes the Latino presence felt strongly throughout the U.S. Today, the undeniable weight of numbers makes the Latino presence felt strongly throughout the U.S. Today, the undeniable weight of numbers makes the Latino presence felt strongly throughout the U.S. today. With respect to the Church, Hispanic Catholics have been responsible for 70 percent of the growth of the Catholic Church in this country over the past three decades. Originally, much of this modern growth was due to the influx of immigration, but in recent years that trend has changed. Today, the growth of Hispanic communities is due more to fertility than to immigration. Thus, 60 percent of U.S. Catholics age 18 and under are already of Hispanic origin. Nearly 90 percent of these young people were born here. Many have inherited religious and cultural practices from their parents, but their first language may no longer be Spanish, and they have grown up with U.S. cultural influences.

Next generations

The Church seems to be reaching out more easily to the immigrant generation, but is having difficulty attracting the next generation. Beyond the Latino community, this phenomenon is also observed with other ethnic groups. Among non-immigrants, African-Americans and Native American Indians are a peculiarly painful case, as the historical-social and racial isolation of these groups in American society also partly dictated the evangelizing model of the Catholic Church with these groups. It is truly impressive, and certainly a work of the Spirit, the perseverance of these communities in the faith despite marginalization, pastoral neglect and, frankly, the racism that has sometimes also infected religious ministers and institutions. And also in spite of the lack of acceptance of some of their traditions and signs of cultural identity as legitimate expressions of the faith and spirituality of these peoples. Given this reality, we are not surprised by the lack of vocations and pastoral leadership coming from these communities, with notable exceptions.

At this historical moment, the Catholic Church in the United States is also seeing its Anglo-Saxon and Eurocentric base aging and shrinking proportionally, while at the same time having difficulty connecting with a very diverse younger generation that the Anglo-Saxon model of youth ministry has not been able to or has not been able to reach.

The strong process of secularization and the relegation of religion to the private sphere make a new evangelization of North American society more urgent and pressing than ever, one that forms disciples who take seriously the missionary mandate: "Go and make disciples of all nations".

Change of mentality

Aware of all this complex reality, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the United States is trying to accompany clergy and faithful to help them understand the necessary changes in mentality, strategies and structural adjustments that will allow the Church to carry out its evangelizing mission in today's reality and with a renewed missionary spirit. This is where Pope Francis' call to be a "church going out", poor and for the poor, intersects with the historical moment of the Church in the United States, now called to its Fifth National Meeting (V Meeting).

Traditionally, as processes of consultation and pastoral discernment with strong Latin American roots - drawing from the sources of Puebla, Medellín, Santo Domingo and Aparecida - the successive national Encuentros nacionales de pastoral hispana have been moments of grace that have oriented and given impetus to "Hispanic ministry" in this country over the past 50 years. The process of this V Encuentro finds its inspiration in number 24 of the apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), in which Pope Francis describes the characteristics of a community of missionary disciples. The V Encuentro seeks to promote this culture of encounter in the U.S. Church and society, while at the same time making a direct and specific call to Hispanic Catholics to "get their act together," to take up the torch, to take personal and communal responsibility for the new evangelization in the United States.

Moment of grace and blessing

Judging by the response of hundreds of thousands of Catholics, Latinos or not, who are participating in the local processes of reflection and consultation, and who have lived missionary experiences going out to the peripheries encouraged by the Encuentro, and also given the high participation of the great majority of the dioceses of the country -with very few exceptions-, the V Encuentro promises to be another moment of grace and blessing not only for the Hispanic community, but for the whole Church in the United States and beyond. This is a Church that strives to walk united in faith and in one Lord, but also embracing and valuing the diversity of gifts, charisms and expressions that characterize it.

The theme of the V Encuentro is "Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God's Love". We count on the sustained and supportive prayers of all of you and of many brothers and sisters so that the fruit of the V Encuentro Nacional de Pastoral Hispana/Latina may be lasting and abundant for the good of the Church. May it be so.

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