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Young Latinos Leaving Faith, Church is Reacting to Rise of Secularization’s Impact

Worshippers recite the Lord’s Prayer during a Mass celebrated in honor of the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Diego. (Photo: OSV News)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — With the number of U.S. Hispanics who identify as Catholic dropping dramatically over the past decade, Catholic leaders say they are concerned, but not surprised. 

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, 43% of Latino adults in the U.S. identify as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010, and almost half of young Latinos are not affiliated with any religion at all. 

In a recent conversation with The Tablet on the study, Bishop Octavio Cisneros, a retired auxiliary emeritus bishop of Brooklyn, described what the Church needs to do to reach Hispanic youth who are growing increasingly distant from the faith. 

That is, evangelize and share the faith, no matter the resistance, and no matter the means. 

“Whether it’s music, physical expression through procession, through dance, through whatever,” Bishop Cisneros explained, “but always with a sense that the Gospel is to be the center of it.” 

While Catholicism remains the dominant religion among Latinos in the U.S., the trends associated with the data show a population distancing itself from the faith and becoming more and more religiously unaffiliated. 

The study, “Among U.S. Latinos, Catholicism Continues to Decline but Is Still the Largest Faith,” published on April 13, found that the share of Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated now stands at 30%, up from 10% in 2010. 

The estimated number of Hispanics in the U.S., according to the Census in 2021, is about 62.5 million, about 31 million of whom are Catholic, which is a little bit of a higher percentage than what was shown in the Pew study. 

Hosffman Ospino, a professor of Hispanic ministry at Boston College, explained to The Tablet that the difference between the 1990s and the 2010s — two periods of high growth for the Hispanic population in the U.S. — is the source of growth. In the 1990s, the major factor of growth for the Hispanic community in the U.S. was immigration, with most immigrants being Catholics from Central/South America and the Caribbean. 

Whereas, in the 2010s, the biggest driver of growth of the Hispanic population was the U.S.-born population — the children and grandchildren of many of those immigrants. 

“These young women and men are actually growing up in the context of an Americanized culture that wrestles with modernism, with secularism, with suspicion toward religion, lack of affiliation, and so on,” Ospino said. “Latinos are Americanized.” 

The difference in the likelihood of a foreign-born Hispanic in the U.S. and a U.S.- born Hispanic being Catholic is evident in the Pew study. It found that more than half of Latino immigrants in the U.S. identify as Catholic (52%), and 21% are religiously unaffiliated. Meanwhile, U.S.-born Hispanics are less likely to be Catholic (36%) and more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated (39%). 

A deeper dive into the data shows that 79% of U.S. Latinos ages 18 to 29 were born in the U.S., about half of whom (49%) now identify as religiously unaffiliated. 

Cruz-Teresa Rosero, who was a member of the Diocese of Brooklyn V Encuentro team alongside Bishop Cisneros and others, told The Tablet that those numbers aren’t surprising. She said the most important thing is for the Church to focus on its programs. 

The V Encuentro was a nationwide four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action in the mid-2010s that focused on the Hispanic Catholic community in the U.S. 

“They grow up in a different way, and we need to find out what they’re yearning for, what their needs are, what they’d like to see from the Church,” Rosero said. “We need to go to them and listen to them. Otherwise, we’ll just keep developing programs for us.” 

It’s unclear exactly how the Hispanic population in the Diocese of Brooklyn has changed in recent years. However, at least two diocesan parishes give reason to believe the diocese may be faring better than the rest of the nation. 

Father Manuel de Jesús Rodríguez of Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona, Queens — a predominantly Hispanic parish — told the Tablet that Mass attendance is around 10,000, up from 8,000 last fall and 5,000 last summer. He attributed the steady growth to three factors: the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the large concentration of Hispanics in the area, and parish outreach and events. 

“We’re working on plans to expand the church because we can no longer fit the amount of people we’re getting,” Father Rodríguez said. “It’s been a continued trend of growth.” 

Similarly, in 2021, Msgr. Ronald T. Marino, former pastor at the Basilica of Regina Pacis in Bensonhurst, told The Tablet the parish added a second Spanish-language Mass to meet demand. 

On a national level, the decline in Hispanic parishioners is something recognized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs, which is set to present a new 10-year pastoral plan for Hispanic Ministry to the U.S. bishops for approval at their June general assembly. 

It’s the first such plan since 1987, according to Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the assistant director for Hispanic Affairs at the USCCB. Aguilera-Titus said the plan has three priorities, the first of which is engagement with Hispanic youth and young adults. 

A focus of that priority, Aguilera-Titus said, is increasing the number of parishes with Hispanic ministry programs. He highlighted that about 4,500 of roughly 16,500 parishes in the U.S. have some sort of Hispanic ministry, but more than 50% of those 4,500 don’t have specific ways of engaging youth and young adults. 

“I think what the bishops want to look at is how to make sure that Hispanic youth and young adults are engaged so they feel welcomed and that they can develop a sense of belonging — not be the faith of their parents but be their own faith,” Aguilera-Titus said. “But if you don’t have strong youth and young adult ministry at the parish level, then you are not in a position to engage them, and therefore they will just fade away.” 

He added that creativity will be crucial to this process, like, for example, parishes having a number of different youth groups and young adult groups that use a number of different types of engagement, as well as a bilingual format. 

Another priority of the pastoral plan, Aguilera-Titus said, is leadership formation of youth and young adults “so that they will not only be receiving the sacraments or catechesis, but so that they will be leaders in the Church and society and then hopefully engage in professional lay ministry, and of course promote vocations to the priesthood, and so on.” 

Ospino said Church leadership needs to look into ways to increase the number of Hispanic youth who attend Catholic school. He also echoed what Aguilera-Titus said about the need to revamp Hispanic ministry, emphasizing the need for the Church to look beyond traditional ways of presenting the faith to “present a credible and appealing proposal to young people today. 

“I think that the Gospel is appealing enough, and I think that the sacraments are appealing enough, but we have to present them in a good way,” Ospino said. “We have to be creative.” 

The pastoral plan Aguilera-Titus will present in June is a direct result of the V Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, of which he was national director. The theme of the process was missionary discipleship, which he noted is a crucial part of the pastoral plan. 

“The Hispanic/Latino community has learned how to go out to the peripheries through the Encuentro process. This needs to become just a way of being Church,” he explained. “That when you are engaging youth and young adults, not just Hispanics but anybody, they need to better understand that they are missionary disciples and that they have a calling … to share the goodness of Christ with everybody, especially those who are most in need of hearing that goodness and feel the embrace of the Church.” 

Rosero said it’s important for the Church to lean on the lessons from the V Encuentro. 

“It’s instrumental because we have projects and programs, but not every pastor, parish, or diocese has followed,” Rosero said. “So if the plan is based on the feedback and needs of the V Encuentro, I would like to see this process taken very seriously.” 

Asked how urgent it is for the Church to act on the trends presented in the Pew study, Bishop Cisneros said it’s crucial, not just for the Church to act on evangelizing the Hispanic community but for all people in the U.S. 

“The emergency is not just for Hispanics,” he said. “The emergency is for the Church in general.”