By Dr. Hosffman Ospino
(CNS) – The overall number of Hispanics who self-identify as Catholic is about 30 million, perhaps more. To put things in perspective, this number is larger than the entire population of most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
One number, however, that often gets little attention when talking about Hispanic Catholics is that of Hispanic priests. According to data collected for the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry process (V Encuentro), there are about 2,985 Hispanic priests in the U.S. Of these, 280 are inactive/retired.
We should not assume that only Hispanic priests can serve Hispanic Catholics. We know that such is not the case in most parishes.
Yet, putting the total number of Hispanic Catholics next to that of Hispanic active priests is quite revealing: 30 million and 2,705. There are about 11,000 Hispanic Catholics for every Hispanic active priest – the ratio for the total U.S. Catholic population is about 2,000 Catholics per priest.
According to V Encuentro research data, there are 4,473 parishes with Hispanic ministry in the U.S. This reflects a small increase compared to the 4,368 similar parishes identified by Boston College’s National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry in 2014.
If we were to place one currently active Hispanic priest in every parish with Hispanic ministry, about 1,768 parish communities would not get that privilege.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) estimated that in 2017, there were about 37,181 Catholic priests in the U.S. Keep in mind that about a third of them are retired or semiretired. Barely 8 percent of all priests in the U.S., active and retired, are Hispanic.
While two-thirds of Hispanics are U.S. born, and the fastest-growing sector within the Hispanic Catholic population is that of those born in the U.S., V Encuentro research revealed that 76 percent of Hispanic priests are foreign-born.
CARA recently reported that about 430 priests would be ordained in 2018 to serve in Catholic communities throughout the country. Of these, 334 responded to an annual survey. Approximately 20 percent of new priests this year are Hispanic. About half of the 30 percent who said they were foreign-born come from Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Three Realities to Be Addressed
What do we learn from these numbers? Three things.
First, Catholic parishes, dioceses, schools and organizations need to do much more to foster vocations to the priesthood among Hispanics. As the Hispanic population gears up to soon become a numeric majority in the U.S. church, Hispanic priests are needed to serve parishes with large numbers of Hispanic Catholics as well as every other Catholic in the nation.
Second, there is a major gap between the mostly U.S.-born Hispanic Catholic population and the mostly immigrant clerical leadership. This gap needs to be gradually balanced. Historically, immigrant priests served various immigrant Catholic groups that arrived in the U.S. Then the U.S.-born generation cultivated its own priests. Today, most Hispanics are not immigrants. We need to take the next step.
Third, we need to understand better the reasons and circumstances that prevent more Hispanic Catholics, particularly U.S.-born, from considering the priesthood as a calling. Also, we need to assess what we are doing and investing in our parishes and dioceses to mentor Hispanics to discern ecclesial vocations. In the fall of 2018, Boston College will launch a two-year national study to explore these realities.
In the meantime, let us heed the words from our Lord Jesus Christ, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38).
Ospino, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, is a member of the leadership team for the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry.