In U.S., Hispanics Bring Catholicism to Its Feet

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

NEW YORK -- For a glimpse into the future of the Roman Catholic Church in America, peek inside St. Benedict's in Queens on a Sunday after the Matsons, Mays and Cassidys have all gone home and Joan Overton has shut down the pipe organ following the sparsely attended 8:30 a.m. Mass. That's when the pews fill up with the Durans, Lopezes and Fernandezes and the spiritual thermometer turns up a notch.

"Everyone on their feet!" cried Gladys Cardenas, a stout and fiery Puerto Rican, as a band struck up behind her. "Come on," she shouted in Spanish. "Get ready to celebrate God!"

On cue, Monsignor John O'Brien emerged in brilliant white robes for the 10 a.m. charismatic Mass -- the most popular in a parish where attendance has declined for every other Sunday service. As the band played a hymn tinged with a merengue beat, Aurora Duran, an 82-year-old Dominican, fell to her knees in throaty "hallelujahs." A man in the front row lifted his hands toward the heavens and began to speak in tongues. Shouts of "Glory!" and "Christ lives!" echoed through the church.

Such scenes were once rarely witnessed in any language inside U.S. Catholic churches, long known for relatively solemn celebrations that eschew the more vivacious religious devotion of evangelical Protestantism. But as waves of Latin American immigrants alter the fabric of life in much of the United States, they are leaving one of their biggest imprints on the Roman Catholic Church.

Their arrival is reinvigorating the U.S. Catholic Church's charismatic movement, which had been in decline since peaking in the 1980s. In recent decades, the movement -- a type of worship that includes faith healing and prophesying -- has swept across Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where Catholic leaders are using rock-star priests and beachfront Masses to stem the defections of their flock to born-again Christian faiths.

American Catholic leaders say the church here has not made a conscious effort to promote charismatic practices. Rather, it has embraced them as a pragmatic response to the growing number of Hispanic Catholics. With one in five Hispanics having left the church over the past 25 years -- many of them to Pentecostal churches -- the newly energized movement could be a saving grace.

"We're responding to a genuine movement of the spirit," said Bishop Robert J. Carlson, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "Especially over the past five years, the charismatic movement is where our growth has been."

In the Archdiocese of Washington, about 5,000 Hispanic Catholics worship regularly at charismatic services at 16 parishes, twice as many as offered such services four years ago. Because many new immigrants work on weekends, the archdiocese also encourages small charismatic prayer groups in private homes.

Rather than representing a shift in the articles of faith, analysts say, charismatic Catholicism is transforming the nature of devotion and putting new emphasis on "personal experiences" with God. The Catholic Church has traditionally used its clergy as the conduits of divine interpretation, but increasingly, charismatic Catholics are being energized by lay ministers in small prayer groups and are employing methods such as speaking in tongues as independent and direct spiritual channels.

More effervescent styles of devotion, analysts say, are also a reflection of the popular custom of religious feast days as well as the ancient influences of indigenous and African spirituality in Latin American cultures.

"Immigration is changing the nature of the American Catholic, making worship more lively, more intense," said Monsignor Joseph Malagreca, moderator of the National Hispanic Committee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "We are accommodating the desire for a deeper and more personal relationship with God."

Hispanics make up a third of all U.S. Catholics, and they are projected to constitute almost half within 25 years. A landmark study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as charismatic.

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