Apr 13, 2016

Austin Catholic Diocese Steps Up Efforts to Retain Hispanics

Reporting Texas

A recent Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic church in Austin began like many others—in English. The priest walked to the altar, raised his hands, palms up, and proclaimed, “The Lord be with you.” And then came the changeup: Many of the congregants replied in Spanish, saying in unison, “Y con tu espiritu,” which translates, “And with your spirit.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe on East Ninth Street has celebrated bilingual Mass for years, but not all churches with Hispanic membership can say the same. In an area where 40 to 45 percent of Roman Catholic parishioners are Hispanic, and Spanish-speaking services are available in 65 of its 110 parishes, the Catholic Diocese of Austin acknowledges that services don’t stretch far enough to help all who need them.

But that’s changing, church officials say. As is the case nationwide, Austin’s Catholic churches, facing the loss of Hispanic parishioners, long a mainstay of the church in Texas, are stepping up efforts to retain and attract members of an ethnic group that makes up 40 percent of the Texas population and is growing year by year.

Spanish is a key. Bob Guajardo, who leads the Spanish music ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe, says many people attend the church because they feel comfortable hearing Mass and participating in programs in Spanish. “This church … is predominantly Hispanic,” he said. “Half of the congregation would feel uncomfortable going to an English Mass.”

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, outreach includes working on social justice issues that are important to the community such as those affecting immigrants. The parish also works with Austin Interfaith, a coalition of community and religious organizations, promoting wage equality and affordable housing for Austin’s disadvantaged, many of whom are Hispanic Catholics living in East Austin.

Edgar Ramirez, who heads the Austin diocese’s Hispanic Ministry Office, said his office helps parishes establish a variety of outreach programs, including bilingual church services, Bible study sessions, social justice programs, and Spanish-language retreats and cultural celebrations. “We want to evangelize people,” Ramirez said, “and we want them to have an impact in their communities.”

Retaining parishioners is by no means a problem only in Texas. Nationwide 55 percent of Hispanic adults are Catholic, according to a 2013 Pew survey, down 12 points from 2010. Nearly a quarter of Hispanics are former Catholics, some having left the church to join other denominations or become unaffiliated, the survey said. Twenty percent of U.S. adults identify as Catholic, 34 percent of those being Hispanic, according to the survey.

Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, an independent biweekly publication based in Kansas City, Mo., said the church has a lot of work to do after many years of ignoring Hispanics. “[T]here is a real desire among the bishops to do this, but it’s not easy,” Reese said. “We have to have better programs to help to priests pay attention to people. And frankly, our churches have to be much more welcoming.”

In Texas, immigration adds another incentive for expanding outreach programs. Salvador Hernandez, a parishioner and former deacon at Our Lady of Guadalupe, said a high percentage of its Hispanic members are longtime Texans, but a growing number are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who typically face challenges in finding housing and jobs.

“When they get here … they’ve got nothing, and we try to help them … get integrated into the system,” Hernandez said. “We wouldn’t be Christians if we didn’t do that.”

The 2013 Pew survey found that, along with a significant number of Hispanics having drifted away from the church, 52 percent said they had stopped believing in church teachings that oppose birth control and divorce. Reese believes such differences of opinion won’t cause too many to leave Catholicism, as long as the church takes vocal stances on issues Hispanics care about most such as immigration, education and health care.

A need for more Hispanic priests is a challenge for outreach efforts, however. The Austin Diocese has 450,000 members and covers a territory that stretches from Waco to San Marcos, Mason to College Station. While both of its leaders, Bishop Joe Vasquez and Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia, are Hispanic, that’s true of only about 40 of 221 clergy members, said Christian Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the Diocese.

Father Rene Costanza, associate pastor of St. Austin’s Catholic church on Guadalupe Street, near the University of Texas campus, said parishes also need to make Hispanics feel comfortable. “For us Latinos, we say that the community makes our identity,” he said. “Our identity is so rooted in … the community. And for us, it is so important to see that it is OK that we have this distinctiveness.”

Hernandez said he is optimistic about the future, provided the church is seen to be willing to fight for the interests of Hispanic parishioners. “[W]hen they see that people like Austin Interfaith is fighting for them, they’ll even join,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the help we give them.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt that Pope Francis, an Argentinian and the church’s first Hispanic prelate, is leading the worldwide church. Hernandez said the pope appeals to Hispanics because he is outspoken about the needs of their communities. During his February visit to Juarez, Mexico, for example, Francis focused on issues such as immigration.

“He doesn’t talk nonsense, he talks the reality of what the world is and what it should be,” Hernandez said. “I think the more things change, the more people will come back to Catholicism.”