After many years of doing research on Hispanic Catholics, one question emerges almost invariably in conversations and speaking engagements: What can our church do to accompany young Hispanic Catholics better?
Not a new question. Church documents and reflections dating back to the 1970s asked the same question. Yet, we ask it today with a renewed sense of urgency. About 60% of all Catholics younger than 18 are Hispanic. So is the case of nearly half of all young adult Catholics (roughly ages 18 to 39).
Let’s say it: Our outreach to young Hispanic Catholics could be much, much better and more dynamic. Barely 2% to 3% of school-age Hispanic Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools. Few dioceses and parishes have strong ministerial programs serving this important population.
Some pastoral leaders ask the above question with frustration. “We have tried it all,” they say. “We translate materials into Spanish” or “We adjust programs that have worked well for other young Catholics but young Hispanics do not respond,” say some others. I hear many versions of these statements.
Often, the questions are asked in despair. About four in 10 Hispanic adults — more than 20 million — have stopped self-identifying as Catholic. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center suggested most Hispanics made that decision prior to age 24.
A problem I see among pastoral leaders, educators and others asking how to better serve young Hispanic Catholics while standing in a stasis of frustration or despair is that often they fail to understand this population.
When someone says that they cannot serve young Hispanic Catholics well because they do not speak Spanish, or have come to realize that a translated program does not yield the same results with a Hispanic population as it did with another group — or feel paralyzed before the exodus of young Hispanics from Catholicism — I get the feeling that we need to change gears.
Instead of starting from a position of frustration or despair, asking why what worked in the past is not working today, we must change the question: What is working successfully in the process of accompanying young Hispanic Catholics? The answer is actually very hopeful. Many great initiatives, most of them unsurprisingly led by creative Hispanic Catholic pastoral leaders who are themselves young adults, are proving effective.
Boston College just released the preliminary results of a national study “Ministry with Young Hispanic Catholics: Towards a Recipe for Growth and Success” (February 2023). I had the privilege of serving as the principal investigator for this study.
This report follows a line of reports emerging from research studies conducted by Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry looking closely at how Hispanics are transforming the entire U.S. Catholic experience. This last report does not disappoint. It documents how much creativity and energy Hispanic pastoral leaders bring into the world of Catholic youth ministry.
There is a treasure of insights in the report, which I recommend studying and discussing attentively in Catholic faith communities and organizations. The study focused on 12 Catholic organizations throughout the country who are identified as doing creative and effective work in accompanying young Hispanic Catholics.
The initiatives highlighted in the study are led primarily by Hispanic young people and their ministry is sustained by what is presented as pillars of success in ministry with young Hispanic Catholics. These organizations are a true example of joyful ministry that brings much hope.
The Holy Spirit is at work in our church as tens of thousands of young Hispanic Catholics rekindle their faith in Jesus Christ thanks to creative ministry. Let no frustration and despair win the day as we accompany young Hispanic Catholics.
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Hosffman Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.