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.

Current census statistics also indicate that the Latino growth rate in America is five times that of non-Latinos, and that 50% percent of U.S. Latinos are under 26, easily making this ethnic group the fastest-growing Catholic community in the country.

All across the United States, Catholic parishes are changing their style of liturgy, the language of their Masses, the feast days they celebrate, and the cultural traditions they honor in order to accommodate their burgeoning numbers of Hispanic parishioners. These changes have not come without grumbling among Anglo Catholics--nor without growing pains among Hispanic Catholics. With persistent priest shortages, members' lagging in education and income (despite impressive recent gains), occasional hostility toward their exotic-seeming cultural rituals, and still-unstanched losses in membership to Protestantism, Latino Catholics likely have a long, rough road ahead before they can truly be called the next Irish Catholics.

Yet all signs point to the fact that the American Catholic hierarchy is hitching its wagon to the Latino community. For example, last June the U.S. bishops sponsored a national gathering of minority Catholics, called the Encuentro, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. In past years, the Encuentro has been a Latino-only gathering. But last year, the Latino community served as the "hosts" of an event designed to bring in people of all different ethnic groups--including Koreans, Vietnamese, and Pacific-Islanders. The Encuentro featured workshops on such subjects as "Children in a Multicultural Society," "Immigration Law," and "Amnesty for the Undocumented." Over 5,000 people attended.

"Hispanics and Latinos are a tremendously important part of the Catholic Church, with wonderful gifts of faith and spirituality to share," said Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernadino, chairman of the bishops' committee on Hispanic affairs. "These Encuentros have given them the opportunity to pray and share and listen to one another."

Ronaldo M. Cruz, chief adviser to the American Catholic bishops on Hispanic affairs, takes his words a step further, expressing hope that Hispanic Catholicism will soon be a strong cultural force--as it was at the Encuentro--in a new and ethnically diverse American Catholicism of the future. "The bishops have been investing in Hispanic ministry for 30 years," he says. "Now we can go out and serve the whole church."

But first, Hispanic Catholics will need to deal with some difficult problems.

Like many immigrants before them, Latinos have brought a special brand of Catholicism with them that can seem disturbingly exotic to some American Catholics. Mexicans, for example, celebrate the Day of the Dead--All Souls Day to Anglophones--as a major feast day every November 2. Most American Catholics scarcely celebrate the day at all.

But some ceremonies have moved into mainstream Catholic culture, an indication of how Latinos are changing the American church. On Good Friday, many urban Catholic churches--including St. Brendan's--reenact the Stations of the Cross on the city streets, a common Hispanic custom.
For eight nights before Christmas, many Latino churches act out the posadas--Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem--with parishioners taking turns hosting statues from the crèche in their homes.