When Americans think of the growing Hispanic/Latino population in the United States, they often automatically peg this demographic as Catholic.
Not so fast, cautions the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Despite the fact that most Hispanics come from countries that are traditionally Catholic, a troubling number of first-and second-generation Hispanics drift away from their Catholic roots.
Or as Sister Mary Peter Diaz, director of the Anchorage Archdiocese Hispanic Ministry, told the Catholic Anchor, “There are many on the periphery of the church.”
To address this issue, the U.S. bishops are sponsoring the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, or V Encuentro for short, and the Anchorage Archdiocese is taking part. The Encuentro will culminate in a meeting of national delegates in September in Texas.
The V Encuentro begins at the parish level, Sister Diaz explained. In the Anchorage Archdiocese these take place at St. Mary Church in Kodiak, Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, all parishes with large Hispanic populations and well-established Hispanic ministries.
“Ten groups gathered for five weeks, and worked through a booklet provided by V Encuentro,” Sister Diaz said. “One of the goals was to commit to reaching out to someone on the periphery.”
Through person-to-person contact participants were able to engage in dialogue and find out whether someone considers himself a Catholic and feels welcomed by the local faith community. These conversations provided insights into the lives of those on the margins of the church, and allowed participants to further reflect on their own involvement in the faith and to build leadership skills.
From this engagement, a report was compiled and will be sent to Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne. From there it goes to a regional Encuentro in Portland, Oregon, where a comprehensive regional report is then sent to the national gathering.
The U.S. bishops’ website notes that the goal of V Encuentro is “to discern ways in which the church in the United States can better respond to the Hispanic/Latino presence, and to strengthen the ways in which Hispanics/Latinos respond to the call to the New Evangelization as missionary disciples.”
The bishops launched their first Encuentro in 1972. The last gathering was a youth convocation in 2006.
The 2016 U.S. census tallied the population of U.S. Hispanics at 57.5 million, or 17.8 percent of the population. According to a 2013 Pew Forum study, about 55 percent of U.S. Hispanics identify as Catholic.
The same census recorded about 298,192 residents in Anchorage, with 9 percent of the population being Hispanic. That translates into about 26,800 Hispanics in Anchorage in 2016.
The two large churches providing Hispanic ministry in Anchorage see a total of about 2,000 individuals involved in those ministries, said Sister Diaz. Additional uncounted Hispanics are likely participating in other Alaska parishes but may not participate in official Hispanic ministries.
But there does seem to be a gap between Hispanic heritage and Catholic Church participation in Anchorage.
“Sometimes they are drifting to other churches,” said Sister Diaz, where the availability of services in the Spanish language is a big draw for many.
Anchorage is blessed, she added, to have two priests from the Vincentian order serving Alaska’s Hispanic population. Father Gabriel Medina, a native of Colombia, and Father Shijo Kanjirathamkunnel, a native of India, who both speak several languages, are stationed at Our Lady of Guadalupe. A third Vincentian is expected at the parish to replace Bishop Andrew Bellisario, who was pastor there before being appointed last year by Pope Francis to be the bishop of Juneau.
The priests offer Mass in Spanish at both Anchorage parishes, and travel to Fairbanks and Kodiak several days of the month.
Additionally, Sister Diaz said the parishes have active Hispanic prayer groups, sponsor Lenten talks and activities like a live Stations of the Cross, with participants dressing as characters from the Lenten devotion.
In another hopeful sign for Hispanic ministry, two Hispanic men will be ordained permanent deacons in Anchorage this year: Gabriel Ruiz, who will serve Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Gustavo Jorge Azpilcueta, who will serve Holy Family Cathedral.