The Gift of Hispanics to the Church

Over the last several years, considerable attention has been paid in the secular and religious media to the growth of Hispanics in the United States. Much information has come from the Pew Research Center and the US Census Bureau. From them, we have learned that the US Hispanic population grew 43% between 2000 and 2010, and that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority sometime after 2040. This Hispanic growth has the potential to radically change the face of America, both politically and religiously. Political commentators generally have stated that President Obama was re-elected in 2012, in part, because of strong Hispanic support.


Meanwhile we also learned the religious implications of Hispanic growth. The Protestant share of the population dropped between 1972 and 2010 but the Catholic share held constant because of immigration from Latin America and the larger families that Hispanics typically raise. An estimated one-third of all US Catholics are now Hispanic and this percentage is almost certain to grow in the coming decades.

I have seen the local effects of this Hispanic growth in the Diocese of Rockford. In 1992, soon after the October Mass count was initiated in this Diocese, 7% of all Mass attendees worshipped at a Spanish Mass; the corresponding figure for 2012 was 23%. In 1994, 11 priests were fluent in Spanish, and only one of these was a native speaker; currently there are 37 fluent priests, of whom 25 are native speakers. Approximately 47% of Catholics in the Diocese of Rockford are Hispanic, a figure that greatly surpasses the estimates of many veteran pastors and parish leaders. Not only are there more Hispanics now, but some characteristics differ from only 20 years ago. The 1990 US Census reported that 22% of Hispanics in the Diocese primarily spoke Spanish at home; the corresponding figure for 2010 was 70%. Truly the landscape has changed, and will continue to change in the future.

The title of this blog, however, is not “Demographic Changes Involving Hispanics” but “The Gift of Hispanics to the Church.” While one could discuss the benefits of greater Hispanic presence from a philosophical point of view, I would like to entertain this issue from an empirical research perspective.  Though this data is now almost 16 years old, I think its conclusions still stand.

In 1997, 55,000 in-pew surveys were completed in the 105 parishes of the Diocese of Rockford as part of a comprehensive planning process. The surveys presented 34 items from a conceptual model of parish vitality. For each of these items, respondents were asked to rate both its importance and its quality. For example, the first statement was: “Our parish Masses are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving experiences.” Respondents first indicated on a scale how important it is that their parishes have this characteristic, i.e. prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving Masses. Then they indicated on another scale the quality, i.e. the degree to which the Masses actually are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving.

While each of these 34 characteristics of a vital parish was measured on both importance and quality, I am only going to discuss the results from the measurement of importance. Factor analysis was used on the importance results and three factors emerged: “Catholic Schools,” “Horizontal Spirituality”, and “Vertical Spirituality.” For this blog I will focus on the last two factors.

The factor Horizontal Spirituality was characterized by a high value put on finding God through others, especially the poor. Survey items that were especially strong components of Horizontal Spirituality included: reaching out to the poor; showing sensitivity on the part of parish leadership to problems and concerns of parishioners; and exhibiting a parish spirit of warmth and hospitality. The factor Vertical Spirituality was characterized by a high value put on finding God through sacraments and devotions. Survey items that were strong components of Vertical Spirituality included: having sufficient opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; having devotional services outside Mass; and seeing reverence on the part of liturgical ministers. The results, in effect, show the “corporate personalities” of the parishes.

When I looked how various parishes appeared on the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our faith practices, I found what I expected, at least at first. My parents’ traditional Polish parish was high on Vertical Spirituality but low on Horizontal Spirituality. My own parish, with its emphasis upon community and social justice, had opposite scores. What I did not expect to find was a group of 10 parishes that scored high on both dimensions; surprisingly all were Hispanic parishes. I double-checked my data and looked for explanations of this phenomenon, such as possible confusion with survey terminology by Hispanics because of lower education levels. After considerable effort to understand the scores of Hispanic parishes, I was left with only one explanation: Hispanics indeed value highly both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of faith.

While this data only applies to the parishes of the Diocese of Rockford, I think the results touch something that has broader implications. While we may strive to be balanced in our faith practices between the horizontal and vertical dimensions, probably most of us gravitate to one pole more than the other. This may be reflected in our choice of parishes, which tend to mirror the inclinations of the people and the pastor. (Conflict often occurs when the pastor changes and the new pastor’s vision differs from those of his people.) In a sense, then, all of us are “cafeteria Catholics” to some degree.

We non-Hispanics need Hispanics to show us how to truly value both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of faith. A similar opinion was expressed in 2009 by Samuel Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican Pentecostal pastor and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical association. Mr. Rodriguez notes “’This is the first group in America to reconcile both the vertical and the horizontal parts of the cross,’ says Mr. Rodriguez. By this he means that the Latino evangelical churches emphasize not only ‘covenant, faith and righteousness’ (the vertical part), as white evangelicals do, but also ‘community, public policy and social justice’ (the horizontal part), as many black evangelicals, but fewer white ones, do.”  1

This is the gift that Hispanics offer us, and we become better Christians by accepting it joyfully.

1 “Latinos are changing the nature of American religion,” downloaded April 5, 2013 from

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