Future hopeful for Hispanic Catholics, despite recent trends

It used to be a reliable assumption. Hispanics in the United States, particularly Latin American immigrants, were Catholic.

But a survey by the Pew Research Center, released earlier this month, reportedly found a substantial decline in the percentage of Hispanics who self-identify as Catholic.

Fifty-five percent of the country’s Latino adults belong to the Church, Pew researchers say, which is a drop of 12 percentage points from a similar report released in 2010. The survey found 18 percent are unaffiliated, 22 percent evangelical or mainline Protestant, and 4 percent identify as “other Christian” or “other.”

More than half of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver are Hispanic and the Church stepped up efforts to catechize and support immigrants and other Latinos more than a decade ago. The archdiocese opened Centro San Juan Diego in 2003, which supports immigrants with pastoral and family services.

“Our Hispanic ministry is a model for the rest of the country,” said Karna Swanson, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Denver. “We take very seriously our role in helping immigrants to grow and maintain their faith.”

The Pew survey did not break down the country by regions, so no data indicate whether Denver and northern Colorado are defying the trend.

Parishes throughout the archdiocese offer 86 Masses each week in Spanish. Swanson said 60 priests, out of a total of more than 300, and seven deacons in the archdiocese are Hispanic or Spanish-speaking, and that the number continues to grow.

Though secular media report the new numbers as a sky-is-falling scenario, Swanson said the big picture is more positive. A 71 percent retention rate among Catholic Hispanics defies success statistics of nearly all other major denominations.

“As immigrants assimilate, many will take on secular aspects of American culture,” Swanson said. “They are no different than Irish or Italian immigrants in that regard.”

Msgr. Jorge De los Santos, archdiocesan vicar for Hispanic ministry, said multiple factors probably explain the drop in Hispanic Catholic identity.

“Most Hispanic immigrants in Denver and the rest of the U.S. are from farms and rural villages in Mexico,” explained Msgr. De los Santos, who migrated here from the northern Mexico city of Torreón in 2003. “Most did not have the benefit of regular access to priests. So Catholicism has become mostly a cultural tradition, with little good information about the teachings of the Church.”

Another issue involves the high volume of Latin American immigration over the past 20 years.

“Obviously, the Catholic Church in the U.S. was not prepared to receive such a large number of Catholics who do not speak English. So, most have been unattended to,” Msgr. De los Santos said.

Here’s the good news. “The American Church is receiving immigrants the best way we possibly can,” Msgr. De los Santos said, explaining that Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of Denver employs 12 full-time people dedicated to supporting Catholic immigrants. “We are so grateful for this American Church.”

Elias Josue Moo is a 29-year-old son of Mexican immigrants and knows first-hand about the trend of Hispanics leaving the faith. Though his parents brought him up in the Church, he quickly ignored it after going away to attend Notre Dame.

“Even at Notre Dame there is no way to get around the influence of the secular culture,” said Moo, assistant principal at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Academy in Denver.

Moo said young Hispanics, like other millennials, are consumed by a secular culture that promotes “freedom” as doing whatever a person desires.

“It’s in music, film, TV and all over the Internet,” Moo said.

He believes young Hispanics typically rebel against immigrant parents who view the sacraments more as cultural traditions than gifts from God, Moo explained, which doesn’t inspire them to embrace the faith.

Moo returned to the Church after graduating from Notre Dame and moving to Denver, where he encountered peer support from faithful young adults involved with various archdiocesan ministries. He studied theology of the body, attended a retreat and had a personal encounter with Jesus that showed him the real meaning of freedom.

“Too many people who have been catechized on doctrine still lack that personal encounter with Christ, and we need to begin simulating the way Jesus went out and called the disciples by name,” Moo said. “We can revert fallen-away Hispanics to the faith, but it has to be about an invitation to something bigger and better. What the secular world offers will bring them comfort and pleasure initially, but it will not fill the void their hearts have for Jesus Christ.”

Ana Lluna thinks part of the problem involves children of immigrants who don’t speak Spanish fluently or at all. Lluna and her husband, Jorge, are missionaries from Spain working through the Neocatechumenal Way to catechize immigrants throughout the archdiocese.

“The second generation is so assimilated they don’t even speak Spanish, but their parents obligate them to attend Spanish Mass,” Lluna explained. “They go, but they don’t know the words. Everything in their life is in English, except the Church, and the culture tells them all they really need to have the American dream is money. That, they understand. The Church, they don’t understand.”

Though Hispanics are assimilating to an increasingly secular culture, Moo holds out great hope for the future. What worked for him will work for others, he believes, if the Church continues shining the light of Jesus.

“When people fall in love with Christ they will naturally discover that they can’t live without his Church and will desire to live more closely in communion with her,” Moo said. “It starts with that first encounter.”

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.