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Vying for Hispanic faithful
The U.S. Catholic Church faces evangelical competition as it tries to maintain its firm hold on an immigrant base.
By SHERRI DAY and SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 23, 2007
Virginia Robles of Town 'N Country and others worship Tuesday during the charismatic prayer group at Incarnation Catholic Church in Tampa.
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Fernando Casanova, Ph.D., leads prayer during a charismatic prayer group at Incarnation Catholic Church. Casanova, who lives in Puerto Rico, left the Pentecostal Church and joined the Catholic Church.
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Rufina Hernandez of Clearwater prays Tuesday during a charismatic prayer group at Incarnation Catholic Church.
The guitars blast to life, pulling the crowd to its feet.
It takes little to prime these believers, who sway and side-step to the beat of the congas.
"Alabare," the crowd sings, a call of praise to the Lord. Arms rise above heads. Shouts of "hallelujah" ripple through the hall.
Eleonora Marin can no longer hold back. The 73-year-old widow stands up and twirls in front of her seat, dancing, she believes, with the Holy Spirit.
The spirited worship could be a tent revival, a Pentecostal or a high-octane evangelical worship service. But this is Incarnation Catholic Church and the 200 faithful gathered here Tuesday night are the target for a battle brewing around the country.
Increasingly, Catholics are facing off against Pentecostals for the souls of Hispanic worshipers. At stake for the Catholic Church is continued vitality and growth in the face of long declining attendance in American churches.
Two-thirds of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Forum. Demographers expect new immigrants and high birth rates among Hispanics to keep bolstering the Latino presence in Catholic churches.
But a nagging trend threatens that: Conversion rates among Latino Catholics continue to climb. Almost one in five Hispanics claim to have changed religions in their lifetime. Most become Pentecostals or evangelicals or abandon religion all together, the Pew study says.
Latino converts cite the lack of a personal relationship with God as the main reason for leaving Catholicism. Observance also drops between first- and second-generation Hispanics.
"Clearly, the Catholic churches are the big losers there," said Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum's executive director. Those who leave are "not dissidents. They are people who are not all that well connected in the Catholic Church, but certainly they're not finding this very intimate direct and personal experience with God that they find in Pentecostal/evangelical movement."
Besides Spanish-language Masses, some Catholic churches have responded by embracing and expanding charismatic services that feature spirited music, speaking in tongues and healing.
"Hispanic Catholics now realize that they don't need to leave the church to find that kind of experience," said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, interim director for the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
And it's a worship style that is not likely to change soon.
"As it goes for the Hispanics, so it goes for the Catholic Church in the 21st century," Aguilera-Titus said. "Just by sheer numbers, they are an emerging majority."
Today 4,000 parishes nationwide have Hispanic ministries, Aguilera-Titus said.
In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, at least 21 parishes have Hispanic Charismatic Ministries and more are set to start soon. Because the diocese says it is focused on ramping up Haitian, Korean and Vietnamese multi-cultural ministries, much of the effort to retain and lure back Hispanics comes from priests.
The Rev. Carlos Rojas at St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City says he takes his inspiration from a Catholic lay movement in the early 1900s that emphasized community and a renewal of the spiritual life.
The church holds weekly matrimonial groups, Bible studies, visits to work camps and a migrant ministry for farm workers. The church also offers two Masses in Spanish - one draws about 1,000 people, and the other pulls in about 800 worshipers.
In many ways, Rojas' programs mirror those of Protestants, many of whom have aggressive outreach programs that appeal to new immigrants. It's a trend American Catholic leaders first saw more than 20 years ago. It spurred pastoral directives in 1987 and 2002 that led to a widespread embrace of Spanish-language Masses and charismatic groups.
At other churches, parishioners have initiated change.
Hispanic parishioners at Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview started an evangelizing group about three years ago. Every Saturday, they knock on doors in east Hillsborough's subdivisions and talk to residents about God and the Catholic Church.
The church experienced a surge in Hispanic members about five years ago, mostly from middle-class Puerto Ricans as well as Mexicans and South Americans, said the Rev. Antonio Diez. And while Hispanics still make up less than half of the congregation, they account for almost all of the Bible study members and often cook and organize church events, the pastor said.
Spirit-filled worship and community outreach are just as much marks of Catholicism as Pentecostal denominations, Diez said. "We just haven't been doing it," he said.
Still, the Rev. Demetrio Lorden, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wimauma, says the Catholic Church has moved too slowly.
"We have to admit and say the Catholic Church didn't care much about them, starting with the language that is a minimum. They had some food and social things, but they didn't realize how much they needed some cultural warmth," he said.
Now that there are more Spanish Masses and churches are adopting small worship and study groups, the next step is to grant more authority to lay people, Lorden said.
That is one of the things that attracts Hispanics to Pentecostal and evangelical groups.
But Denise Vargas believes the Catholic Church is adapting. "The most important thing is ... reaching out, letting people know what Jesus is all about," said Vargas, 45, who lives in Oldsmar and is a lay minister at Incarnation Catholic Church.
The spirit moves
Once the music stops at Incarnation, Fernando Casanova takes to the stage to preach.
A native of Puerto Rico and a popular speaker there, Casanova is in town to share his testimony with area Catholics. Charismatic group organizers hope he will energize the faithful.
Casanova talks with great fervor in Spanish, his voice rising and falling like the Pentecostal preacher he once was, for more than an hour.
"I'm on fire," Hiram Rodriguez says afterward. He attends St. Patrick's Catholic Church in South Tampa. "It's just something that's kind of permeating. It's the ripple effect. When (others) go back to their prayer groups, they'll share that and it will bring people back for sure."
On this night, because of the special speaker, the prayer leaders don't lay hands on the sick.But it's a routine part of what they do, a hallmark of charismatic groups, and it keeps many parishioners coming back.
"It's just so incredible the way the spirit moves," said Dr. Angel Ojeda, 49, who attends Incarnation. "The power of prayer is so big here. It's just different. When I come here, it carries me through the rest of the week."