B16: Doing the Latino math

st thomas guadalupe processionSo Pope Benedict XVI moved on up the coast to New York and, as you would imagine, the newspaper of record in those parts is packed with coverage today. We could do an entire day or two on this here blog simply trying to scan all of that. But did I miss any editorials or op-eds today? Anyway, I thought that the most interesting story of the lot was a backgrounder on the role of Hispanics in the modern American Catholic Church, only turning the telescope around to look at this issue from the perspective of the many Hispanics that have exited into Pentecostal churches. Like many of the other stories being done these days, you can sense the presence of data DNA from the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life, even in places where it is not directly quoted.

For example, read this story. Then click here and dig around a bit. See any ties?

Here is the section of the story that interested me the most.

... (If) Latinos are feeding the population of the church, many have also turned to Pentecostalism, a form of evangelical Christianity that stresses a personal, even visceral, connection with God. Today, it has more Latino followers in the United States than any other denomination except Catholicism; they are drawn, they say, by the faith's joyous worship, its use of Latino culture and the enveloping sense of community it offers to newcomers. As the Pew survey revealed, half of all Latinos who have joined Pentecostal denominations were raised as Catholics.

They are part of a global shift. Pentecostalism, the world's fastest-growing branch of Christianity, has made such sharp inroads in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, that in an address to bishops there last year, Pope Benedict listed its ardent proselytizing as one of the major forces the Catholic Church must contend with in the region.

Catholic leaders and experts on the church in the United States say that the impact of Pentecostalism has been less dramatic here. Still, the pope has urged the nation's bishops to make every effort to welcome immigrants -- "to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home."

You will notice some confusion about the very nature of Pentecostalism itself (perhaps the editors needed to cruise through another Pew study), with it being a single denomination in one reference (wrong), to a movement containing many denominations (right). Of course, many of the most vital Pentecostal churches are devoid of any denominational ties and others are still part of mainline bodies or, of course, the Roman Catholic Church.

Clearly, the reader needed more clarity there. However, I would be the first to admit that the post-denominational age is hard to get a handle on -- period.

The story also fails to nail down another reality. Roman Catholicism used to be a church that offered a profound sense of mystery and made urgent claims about a supernatural faith. Has that remained the case in Western expressions, in the post-Vatican II world? Meanwhile, Pentecostal Christians are touching working-class Hispanics at a basic, supernatural, communal level.

The story does a great job on the communal side, but not the spiritual. There is more to this story than some Latino praise music and a few people playing guitars, percussion and trumpets. There are doctrinal and moral issues here, too.

It is crucial that the Times story addresses another key question -- how many of the new Latino Catholics in North America are interested in the priesthood, religious orders and the permanent diaconate?

Father Deck, of the Office for Cultural Diversity, said the Catholic Church was making progress. Latinos now make up about 15 percent of all seminarians. "And we've had an explosion in what we call lay ministry," he added. "There are thousands of Latinos who are lectors during Mass, do outreach work, are catechism teachers, and we have some who are administering parishes."

That's where the next story can be found and, of course, in the second-generation church statistics about faith and practice among children and grandchildren.

Many of these issues are, of course, linked to political debates about legal and illegal immigration, a hot story that the pope could not ignore. He didn't ignore it, during the New York visit.

But there is only so much that the Catholic establishment can do, in its tense talks with politicians about tough issues along the border and in the new multicultural heartland. The questions that matter the most are the ones that Catholic leaders face right now -- at their own altars and in their own pews.

Decades ago, when I was covering Hispanic churches in Denver, I heard ex-Catholics say two things over and over. They wanted pastors who spoke Spanish and who were Latinos. They really didn't care if they were married or single. They wanted real Hispanic parishes and they wanted clergy that they could trust. That's the next layer of this story.

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