National meeting signals ‘coming of age’ for Hispanic Catholics in U.S.

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By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

GRAPEVINE, Texas — Latinos are not a challenge or a problem for the U.S. Catholic Church.

They are the church.

That’s the message from some Hispanic leaders as the fastest-growing segment of American Catholicism rapidly becomes the majority.

“There are too many things that have gone wrong for the church to risk alienating its majority,” said Carmen Nanko-Fernández, professor of Hispanic theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “Latinos are saying, ‘We’re almost the majority, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.’”

With the church hierarchy embroiled in scandal over clergy sexual misconduct and abuse of minors, Nanko-Fernández said, “There’s less tolerance for mismanagement in the church than ever before. There’s less tolerance for not being heard than ever before.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described a four-day bilingual meeting last weekend (Sept. 20-23) as a “crucial turning point for the Catholic Church in America,” designed to discern ways in which the church can better respond to its growing Latino population.

In 1972, the bishops’ conference organized the first National Hispanic Encuentro — a Spanish word for meeting — to discuss greater participation for Latinos in church leadership and decision-making roles.

Nearly a half-century later, the fifth such national gathering — called “V Encuentro” — brought together more than 3,000 delegates and 127 bishops for what Pope Francis characterized as “a historic moment for the church in the United States.”

Said Nanko-Fernández, “I hope they listen this time.”

The conversation is a difficult one, given the diversity within that budding majority, generationally, culturally and even linguistically: for many younger Hispanic Catholics, English, not Spanish, is their primary language.

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Religion News Service is a national wire service whose media partners include The Associated Press, USA Today and the Washington Post.

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