When Pope Benedict XVI visits the U.S. this week, he'll find the Catholic Church here in the midst of a demographic shift. Traditionally, American Catholics have been white and of European descent. Now, Latinos make up nearly a third of U.S. Catholics, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Latinos, including many new immigrants, have energized the church and in some cases brought a charismatic style of worship.
On a recent Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Father Jarlath Cunnane stood backstage, waiting to preside over a worship service for 4,000. He'd already said two Masses in Spanish at his neighborhood church.
"[At the church,] we seat 1,000 people. We do nine Masses on Sunday. They're all full. So you know, from where we sit, we're just overwhelmed," Cunnane says.
His experience contrasts with that in places such as Chicago and Philadelphia, where some inner-city churches have closed because of shrinking attendance. According to the Pew Forum, about a third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. No other major U.S. faith in the U.S. has lost as many members.
A Festive Celebration
Back at the convention center, the celebration of Christ was one big fiesta. As Mass began, worshippers rose and clapped in unison to music from a rock group playing beside the altar. Jumbo screens flanking the stage showed Cunnane entering along the main aisle. Parishioners surrounded him, raising their hands over their heads. Many of them poured into the aisle behind him to dance.
This particular Mass was sponsored by a ministry called El Sembrador, Spanish for "The Sower." The ministry takes a charismatic approach to worship, more like a Pentecostal service than the traditional Catholic ritual.
The Pew survey, released in February, found that among Latino Catholics who attend church, six out of 10 attend nontraditional masses.
"Latinos who adopt charismatic types of practices ... are, if anything, more likely to be connected to the church," says Luis E. Lugo, the Pew Forum's director. "Rather than using that experience as a halfway house out of Catholicism, it actually seems to integrate them."
Reaching Out to Immigrants
As Mass wrapped up, Adrian Jeronimo was smiling broadly and slightly winded by his energetic clapping and singing. He had entered the country illegally six years ago, he said, and the related pressure drove him to drinking and a crystal methadone addiction. His behavior almost destroyed his family, Jeronimo said, but he stopped using drugs when he "found God" a year ago. He called the discovery "marvelous."
For years, the U.S. church has reached out to immigrants, promoting their rights and supporting their spirits. The isolation of living illegally in a foreign land creates a more urgent need for a relationship with God, Cunnane said.
"The tragedy and harshness of life does send people looking for spirituality," the priest said. "So folks have to depend. They cannot be independent. They must help one another to survive."
Cunnane said the Latino immigrants who arrive at his church remind him of the first Christians, who were persecuted in Jerusalem and forced into exile. Like those early Christians, these new parishioners might be God's way of renewing the Catholic Church in the United States.