Hispanics in diocese seek integration in parishes
A priest serving Hispanic parishioners might do well to keep a vial of holy water close at hand, so when he visits a home he can bless the house or a grandfather on his birthday.
Or he may want to set aside some Saturdays for family baptismal celebrations or their teenage girls’ quinceaneras (coming-of-age parties).
Such are the small, but important, traditions in the Hispanic community.
Some parish priests in the Diocese of Richmond, like Father Dan Kelly, simply love Hispanic ministry and try to immerse themselves in the culture.
Others, like Father Tom Mattingly, learned Spanish because they recognized a need to minister to a growing Hispanic population in the diocese’s churches. A few clergy have the advantage of being Hispanic themselves.
But for all pastors involved in Hispanic ministry it’s a challenging job.
Father Mattingly, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrisonburg, pointed out that while “Hispanic community” includes a wide range of people, a sizable portion is working class, immigrant families. In larger churches, the group’s economic and educational needs, including many adults’ inability to communicate in English, can strain parish resources.
Additionally, language and cultural differences often separate Hispanic members from the larger parish community. “Unifying is the big problem,” said Father Kelly, pastor of St. Mary Church in Lovingston.
The Philadelphia-born priest has been serving Hispanic Catholics in numerous capacities for nearly 30 years including a dozen with migrant farm workers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore when he was pastor of St. Peter’s in Onley. During that time he’s worked hard to understand their culture.
He believes that learning Spanish “shows a welcome,” and visiting in the homes of Hispanic parishioners, sharing in their special devotions and family traditions goes a long way toward understanding and serving them effectively.
In that regard, Father Kelly is a role model for parishioners at St. Mary’s where about 100 attend Mass in English and 125 in Spanish every weekend. His church has several bi-lingual, cross cultural activities annually and he said, “The people know each other and, in general parish life, we have good integration.”
But in liturgy and prayer it’s a different story. He recalled once offering a bi-lingual parish retreat at which, when it came to deeper, spiritual discussion, he was disappointed that, “there was really not any meaningful exchange.”
He admitted, “Praying together as one body, that’s a big minus.”
But it’s the goal.
In fact, integrating Hispanic members into their parish community is the goal for the whole diocese, explained Sister Inmaculada Cuesta-Ventura, CMS, known as Sister Inma, the new diocesan Director of Hispanic Ministry.
“The big thing is integration, to be one body in Christ,” she said.
The diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry estimates there are 200,000 Hispanic Catholics living in the Richmond Diocese although only about 20,000 are actually registered in parishes. Weekend Mass in Spanish is offered at 21 churches in the diocese.
Many have a large number of Hispanic families attending Mass and coming for the sacraments and Christian formation classes.
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo wants to help parishes integrate Hispanic ministry into the community rather than have “parallel” programs that tend to separate Spanish-speaking families, Sister Inma said.
“Some parishes already are well-integrated,” she pointed out.
But for many others there has been a great deal of frustration for both pastor and parishioners because of language and cultural differences along with a need for more and specialized resources.
In response, the Office of Hispanic Ministry currently is developing strategies for pastors to address those concerns.
“This is not an imposition, but a proposal to help priests with resources and strategies for Hispanic ministry including staff needs for Christian formation,” Sister Inma explained.
Such guidance will be appreciated by a number of pastors including Father Rene Castillo whose parish, St. Gerard’s in Roanoke, has been struggling to unify its diverse membership since before he arrived there eight years ago.
“I eagerly await direction and any new initiatives from the diocese,” he said. His parish, which historically had been predominantly African-American, began changing about a decade ago with an influx of Hispanic immigrants. Now St. Gerard’s membership is more than half Hispanic.
Father Rene explained that formation classes, offered entirely in English, bring the children together, but other than the annual parish picnic there are few activities that draw the whole community as one.
“We are not fully integrated,” he said flatly. “Personally, I have a sense of frustration that competing groups have a tendency to go off on their own.”
back to top »