Father Gonzalo Oajaca-Lopez, pastor of Resurrection Church in Farmingville, N.Y., blesses the congregation with holy water after celebrating a Spanish-language Mass marking the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 12, 2021. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of Mexico, the Americas and the unborn. Eighty percent of Resurrection's parishioners are people of Mexican ancestry. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Getting Started with Hispanic Outreach in the Parish

Tips for engaging, and benefiting from the witness of, Latino Catholics

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More and more of our parishes have Hispanic faithful. What can a parish do to embrace Latino people and their culture?

I have had the pleasure of working extensively with the Hispanic community in the Diocese of Columbus here in Ohio for the past 13 years. Currently, I am the pastor of two parishes where Latinos are the majority. Hispanics have shaped my priesthood for the better, and they continue to bring life to my local Church. It is a privilege for me to share thoughts on how to build up Hispanic ministry in the life of a parish. My hope is that, with the help of these comments, pastors will be able to engage more fully with the Hispanics in their midst and benefit from their witness of faith just as I have.

The Spanish-speaking faithful need different pastoral care than English-speaking Catholics, and the most obvious distinction between the two communities is the language. It is my conviction that the most impactful way a pastor can serve the Hispanic population within his parish boundaries is to offer Mass and basic sacramental preparation in Spanish. From that starting point, a pastor can then develop meaningful faith formation that resonates with his Spanish-speaking parishioners.

Those parishioners can subsequently be sent out to evangelize as missionary disciples in the broader Hispanic community. The end goal of Hispanic ministry should always be comprehensive faith formation and mission, not just offering sacraments in Spanish. A pastor does not want to “sacramentalize” Spanish speakers, but rather evangelize them in the fullest sense of the word.

The following is a playbook for growing Hispanic ministry.

First Step: Mass in Spanish

Like most ministries in the parish, the pastor will get off the ground by building an energetic leadership team. The core of that leadership team will most likely consist of the Hispanics already coming to Mass in English and participating in the life of the parish. These individuals have surely received some faith formation and are ready, at least in part, to share the fruit of their encounter with Christ. It will not take much to convince them that having Mass in their native language will make the parish more welcoming to Spanish speakers and open the door to more intentional outreach in the broader Hispanic community. To put it another way, that team of leaders will galvanize around the initial goal of beginning a regular Mass in Spanish at the parish.

Critical to this team will be the priest who celebrates the Mass. It is a great blessing if the pastor is able to preside at the liturgy, even if he is not completely fluent in Spanish. However, if the language is an insurmountable obstacle for him, then the pastor and his leadership team will have to locate a priest who speaks Spanish and is able to visit the parish on a consistent basis, perhaps from a nearby city, seminary or shrine.

Second Step: Sacramental Preparation

As soon as a pastor begins offering a regular Mass in Spanish, there will be a need for sacramental preparation for his Spanish-speaking parishioners. There are a great number of baptisms and weddings in the Hispanic community, and requests for those sacraments will come. This means that one or more members of the leadership team should be ready to accompany individuals as they prepare themselves for these celebrations. That accompaniment means, in the first place, assisting Spanish-speaking parishioners with the paperwork involved with sacramental preparation.

It sometimes takes extra effort to walk with a Hispanic family through the process of registering in the parish, turning in documents and scheduling sacraments. That accompaniment also means instructing those who will participate in the sacraments. Fortunately, there are now available a great number of resources in Spanish to assist lay leaders with such sacramental preparation.

Third Step: Developing Missionary Disciples

Once there is a regular Mass and basic sacramental preparation offered in Spanish, the pastor will be able to focus on the developing missionary disciples. Again, the leadership team will be the main driver in this process. Those lay leaders will be the ones to organize retreats, invite speakers for parish missions and plan devotionals.

These faith formation events should be scheduled in light of the holy days that are significant in Latin America. For example, Hispanics will be more open to a retreat that leads them into the celebration of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. They will be more likely to attend a parish mission if it incorporates a Eucharistic procession on the weekend of Corpus Christi. Spanish speakers will undoubtedly give more of their time and attention to a novena that prepares them for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

These moments in the liturgical calendar are opportunities to offer our Hispanic brothers and sisters transformative encounters with Christ. Then, it will be essential to plan to follow up (seguimiento) for all those who participate. For the Hispanic community, this follow-up could look like a weekly gathering in the church for the Rosary, intercessory prayer and/or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Fourth Step: Sending Forth and Evangelization

Participating in Mass and the sacraments, together with receiving ongoing faith formation, will lead to Spanish-speaking parishioners witnessing to Christ in the broader Hispanic community. They will be able to speak about their experience in the parish to their family members, friends and co-workers. Once Hispanics in the area know that Spanish is spoken at the local Catholic church, they will gravitate toward that community. Moreover, the parish’s ongoing faith formation events in Spanish will become significant evangelistic opportunities. Parishioners will be able to invite fellow Spanish speakers to participate in church events, introducing them to the community.

It is not lost on me that, for some parishes, it will simply be impossible to find a priest to celebrate Mass in Spanish on a regular basis. However, a pastor who is greatly limited in Spanish and cannot find a priest who speaks the language could still form a leadership team with his Hispanic parishioners. With the help of that leadership team, he could offer sacramental preparation and opportunities for faith formation in Spanish. He could also create space for Spanish-speaking parishioners to gather regularly for prayer in the church. Though not as helpful to the Hispanic community as a regular Spanish Mass, if organized and promoted well, that sort of consistent public gathering could attract Spanish speakers from the broader community and help them encounter Christ in the Church.

The Importance of Gestures

As a pastor begins to be more intentional about welcoming and forming Spanish speakers, he will use gestures to show his desire to receive them in the community. One of the most obvious gestures would be to find a prominent place in the church for the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her presence is a sign that the parish recognizes the presence of Hispanic Catholics and affirms their expression of faith.

An even more practical gesture would be the hiring of a bilingual staff person. That individual would be able to work with Spanish speakers who need assistance navigating the life of the parish. That staff member would also facilitate all means of communication directed toward the Hispanic community — for example, bulletin blurbs, Flocknote messages and social media posts in Spanish. Though a significant financial investment, a bilingual staff member in the parish office indicates that the church is committed to the Spanish speakers within its boundaries.

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STATISTICS

The Associated Press reported in March 2020 that “Hispanics now account for 40% of all U.S. Catholics, and a solid majority of school-age Catholics. Yet Hispanic Americans are strikingly underrepresented in Catholic schools and in the priesthood — accounting for less than 19% of Catholic school enrollment and only about 3% of U.S.-based priests.”

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In addition to the help provided by a bilingual staff member, the pastor will seek assistance and counsel from Gente Puente, that is “People Bridges.” These individuals are immigrants who have been in this country for decades or are the sons and daughters of immigrants who were born in the United States. Gente Puente are not only bilingual but also have the sensibilities that enable them to operate comfortably within different cultural dynamics. They are often familiar with customs and expectations when it comes to both Spanish speakers and English speakers. This knowledge enables them to communicate clearly, resolve conflicts effectively and facilitate collaboration among different parish groups. A pastor building up Hispanic ministry in his parish will have to surround himself with Gente Puente — many of whom will be on his leadership team — and leverage their cultural wherewithal in the church.

Speaking of individuals with cultural sensibilities, the pastor himself will have to be keen to the diversity even within the Hispanic community. A pastor should be aware of his parishioners’ ethnicities and countries of origin because each will have its own unique devotions and traditions. For instance, Catholics from the Dominican Republic will want to celebrate La Virgen de Altagracia in January, while parishioners from Peru will want to celebrate Señor de los Milagros in October. The pastor can learn more about these beautiful celebrations from his parishioners and support them in the life of the parish.

To embrace Hispanic ministry is to be stretched as a priest. Personally speaking, my brothers and sisters from Latin America have helped me fall in love with the various cultures that are found within my churches’ boundaries, and I am sincerely grateful for the strong pastoral partnerships I have formed with the Gente Puente in my ministry. Jesus is the ultimate Gente Puente, the bridge between God and man (cf. 1 Tm 2:5). He likewise calls pastors to bridge cultural differences in order to lead all souls to the Father. 

FATHER DAVID SCHALK is the vicar for Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, and the pastor of Christ the King and St. Thomas parishes in Columbus.

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National Encuentro

Encuentro is a two-year process of missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and pastoral discernment in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions that culminates with a national event. A primary outcome of the Encuentro process is to discern pastoral practices and priorities to impact the quality of ministry among Hispanic/Latino Catholics, under the leadership of the U.S. bishops.

“The Cross of the Encuentros symbolizes the faith journey of Hispanic/Latino Catholics in the United States over the past 50 years. This journey has received inspiration and direction through the National Encuentros on Hispanic Ministry, which call for a model of church that is evangelizing, communitarian and missionary. The Encuentros, past and future, are true movements of the Spirit where Hispanic Catholics in the United States anticipate. God’s grace accompanied and guided by their bishops. Hispanic Catholics, immigrant and native, bilingual and diverse, today constitute 40% of all Catholics in the United States and more than 50% of all Catholics under 35. We find in Hispanic Catholics a renewed hope for families that are evangelizing and missionary, promoters of vocations, attentive to the existential peripheries, defenders of the poor, and who claim their right to live out their faith in liberty and with justice in this great nation of many cultures and peoples.
“The main objective of the process of Encuentro is to discern the way in which the Church in the United States responds to the Hispanic/Latino presence, and to strengthen the way in which Hispanics/Latinos respond as a Church.”

— National Encuentro, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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