The Changing Face of American Catholicism

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of Catholics in the U.S. How is the church changing to meet their needs?

BY: Maurice Timothy Reidy

 


After a recent Sunday Mass at St. Brendan's church in the north Bronx, a freckled teenage boy, obviously Irish, walked up to the pulpit, picked up the English-language lectionary, and carried it back into the sanctuary. A few moments later, an obviously Latina woman with dark hair and wire-rim glasses emerged from the sanctuary with a Spanish-language lectionary for the next Mass. She placed it in the pulpit that the boy had just relinquished.

Twenty years ago, this church and its surrounding community were, like the freckled altar server, Irish to the hilt. Today, both are mostly Latino.

The demographic shift extends to the very style of the liturgy at St. Brendan's. At the English Mass, the pews contained a scattering of white-haired women and balding men, the last remnants of the Irish community that once filled the post-World War II vintage apartment buildings surrounding the church. During the liturgy, many chose not to join in the singing--a feature of buttoned-down Irish Catholicism well documented in sociological literature--and they exchanged polite and restrained handshakes during the kiss of peace.

The Spanish-language Mass that followed, on the other hand, was packed with young Latino couples and their children, a diverse sampling of the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans who have been moving into the neighborhood over the last several years. All the parishioners sang vigorously during the liturgy, and, at the kiss of peace, many ventured halfway across the church to embrace friends.

The story of St. Brendan's is in many ways the story of today's Catholic Church in America. Once predominantly Irish, the church is quickly becoming more and more Latino. Recent U.S. Census Bureau projections indicate that the number of Latinos in this country is nearly 32 million, up 38% since 1990. Using 1998 data, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops report that approximately 70% of these Latinos are Catholic.

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