It is well known by now – or at least it should be – that the future of the Catholic Church in the United States is decidedly Latin. Latinos make up more than 40% of all Catholics, and most Catholics under 30 have their roots in Latin America.
Most Latino Catholic families speak both English and Spanish at home, according to the V Encounter, a multi-year dialogue led by the U.S. bishops to better serve this growing community. But Latino children born in the United States are more likely to prefer English over Spanish, according to a number at Pew studies. This poses a challenge for parish youth ministries with limited resources seeking to reach Latin American families.
Most Catholic Latino families speak both English and Spanish at home, but US-born Latino children are more likely to prefer English over Spanish.
“We are at different stages to determine what youth ministry should look like in the Latin American community”, Darius Villalobos of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry Told America. “I intentionally phrased it that way because there isn’t one model or one approach that I think is implemented consistently across the country.”
Many parishes use “Pastoral Juvenil,” which is an adaptation of the Latin American youth ministry model, Villalobos said. It is more common in immigrant communities and among church movements, and especially effective with those who speak primarily Spanish.
“But we know that the vast majority of young Hispanic Catholics are second and third generation,” he said. “We try to find a balance, taking into account linguistic needs and cultural needs.”
Good youth ministry must also include parents, Villalobos said, especially in the Latino context. While some programs may separate parents from their children, he said, Hispanic families tend to prefer doing things together. This can create another challenge when parents are more comfortable in Spanish and their children prefer English.
“It has to be intergenerational,” he said. “A good ministry to young Latinos must take this language issue seriously. We try to build bridges between generations, between cultures and between religious experiences.
“A good ministry to young Latinos must take this language issue seriously. We try to build bridges between generations, between cultures and between religious experiences.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is central to the faith of many Catholics, especially those with roots in Mexico, he said. But youth ministry among Puerto Rican Catholics must also include the Virgin of the Divina Providencia. Youth ministers should also support new Latin American saints, such as St. Óscar Romero.
And why not include party piñatas?
Her points resonate with Gloria Mancilla, a youth ministry at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, Iowa and mother of two teenagers.
“The only issue I see in my church that we need to work on is bilingual evangelism,” she said. “Many of our children prefer English. They want to be able to hear the message in a language they understand.
Even though parents pass on their culture to their children and take them to Mass in Spanish, children in youth ministry programs speak English eight hours a day at school, she said. “They go home and listen to music in English. They are exposed on English television,” Ms Mancilla said. “So basically 80% of their life is in English and maybe 20% in Spanish with their mom and dad at home. But if their parents work all the time, they don’t have anyone to talk to them in Spanish.
If retreats and other events are in Spanish, they won’t tune in, she says, or they’ll be bored. “But when you expose them in their own language and even use Spanglish, they get used to it. And they understand,” Ms. Mancilla said. “I feel like this is where we need to work in my parish.”
The vast majority of youth ministers are non-Latinos. This is why strengthening intercultural skills is essential.
His former parish, St. Mary’s, merged with St. Anthony in 2020, a difficult process made more complex by the pandemic, Ms. Mancilla said. “We do a lot of cultural things that were part of St. Mary’s,” she said. “It was a shock to the parishioners of St. Anthony because they were never exposed to any of this – quinceañeras, Our Lady of Guadalpue, las Posadas, Day of the Dead.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Mancilla attended the Raices and Alas (“Roots and Wings”), convened by the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry. She said the conference highlighted some parish priorities for Hispanic ministers, including involving families, outreach to youth, sponsorship of social action, and developing new parish leaders, especially young adults. . Developing more young leaders is particularly important to Ms. Mancilla, who believes young Catholics can more easily connect with their peers.
Reverend Guillermo Treviño, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Liberty and Columbus Junction, Iowa, also attended the conference. He agrees with Ms Mancilla to allow young Catholics to lead. His assistant for confirmation classes, Jessica Sanchez, often communicates via new social media like Whatsapp and Snapchat, he said.
“I’m still on Facebook and Twitter,” said Father Treviño, who at 36 could still be considered young for a priest. “I was a baby priest, but now I joke and say I’m a tiny little priest. I’m still learning.”
Most of the messages come out in English, but there is a teenager in the program who recently arrived in the United States from Latin America. Father Treviño speaks to him in Spanish.
“For every millennium that arrives, six leave. If a company experienced the same rate of loss, it would be a crisis…. They would completely revolutionize the way they do business.
“In Latin ministry, there is no cookie-cutter curriculum,” said Fr. Treviño, who was born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised bilingual. “It really depends on each region, which generation, and even then it varies over time.”
The need to find the right mix is even more critical in light of the number of young people leaving the church. According to a public institute of religion and research investigation published last July, 36% of Americans aged 19 to 29 do not associate themselves with any particular religion. In 2006, PRRI found that 23% of young people in this age group were not affiliated with any religion.
Some young Catholics are trying to do something about it. Father Treviño noted a lecture given by Martin Soros during the Raices y Alas conference in particular. Mr. Soros, who at 18 will be a freshman at the University of Notre Dame this fall, named polarization within the church as a major issue. Debates over which politicians should be allowed to receive Communion, while important, do not help, he said.
“For every millennium that arrives, six leave,” Soros said, referring to a 2019 speech by Bishop Robert Barron to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “If a company experienced the same rate of loss, it would be a crisis…. They would completely revolutionize the way they do business.
But that doesn’t happen in the church, he said. “I know the church is not a business. But if it did, our product would be the gospel,” Soros said. “If these people had a strong relationship with Jesus, they wouldn’t leave the church.”
“A good youth ministry program in a multicultural space can be where you integrate communities and allow them to truly appreciate different cultures.”
While a third of Americans say they were raised Catholic, only 21% now identify as Catholic, according to a 2016 PRRI study on disaffiliates. The study also reported that 62% of those who left their childhood religion did so before turning 18.
The same study reported that Americans who had abandoned their childhood faith most often cited three reasons as “important” in their decision:
- 60% left because they no longer believe in the teachings of their church
- 32% said their family was not religious when they were growing up
- 29% said they left because their church was too negative towards the LGBT community
“These are not the real causes why people leave the church,” Mr Soros said. “These reasons simply make it easier for young people to leave…. The question that parents, youth workers, priests and catechists must ask themselves is: ‘How will they understand the love of God?’
The 2016 study did not focus on ethnicity, but according to Mr. Villalobos, if you talk about youth ministry today, it must include the growing Latino population. “Because they are quickly becoming the majority of those we serve,” he said. “But we haven’t necessarily adapted our models to reflect that.”
Being bilingual, for example, would help youth ministers communicate with teenagers and their parents. But not all youth ministers are bilingual, Villalobos said, and religious publishers do not provide enough fully bilingual materials in English and Spanish. (Ministers often have to choose documents in either all-English or all-Spanish formats.)
The field of youth ministry, Villalobs added, does not reflect those it seeks to serve. In other words, the vast majority of youth ministers are not Latinos. This is why building cross-cultural skills is essential, he said, commending the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for its efforts in this regard.
“A good youth ministry program in a multicultural space can be where you integrate communities and allow them to really appreciate different cultures,” Villalobos said. “It’s probably the easiest place you can do this kind of work. Adults can be a little set in their ways, but young people tend to be open and willing to share.