PHOENIX, Arizona — Maria Chavira, a senior administrator in the Diocese of Phoenix, says Spanish-speaking Catholic parishes in her area are “bursting at the seams” and celebrates the emergence of Hispanics as the largest ethnic component of the church nationwide.

Throughout the Southwest, where the surge has been dramatic, Catholic leaders are excited by the possibilities — and well aware of daunting challenges.

Hispanics now account for 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, and a solid majority of school-age Catholics. Yet Hispanic Americans are strikingly underrepresented in Catholic schools and in the priesthood — accounting for less than 19 percent of Catholic school enrollment and only about 3 percent of U.S.-based priests.

In the Phoenix diocese, there are than 700,000 Hispanics out of a total of 1.2 million Catholics. Yet out of more than 200 priests, Catholic researchers counted only seven American-born Hispanics.

Extensive efforts are under way to narrow the demographic gaps. They have been highlighted in a nearly completed four-year study by U.S. Catholic bishops seeking to strengthen the church’s engagement with Hispanics.

”We have a lot of opportunities,” said Chavira, who oversees the Hispanic Mission Office and other departments in the Phoenix diocese. “There may be a little turbulence ahead, but we’re going to make it.”

Children run during recess at the St. Agnes Elementary School in Phoenix, Ariz., on March 3, 2020. In 2016, the student body at St. Agnes was two-thirds Hispanic; the figure is now 95%, and virtually every student receives financial aid through state-approved tax credit programs that extend to private schools. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

Chavira is among more than two dozen Catholic leaders and activists who shared their thoughts about the Hispanic Catholic phenomenon with The Associated Press, some in telephone interviews and others face to face, during a reporting trip to Arizona and Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Evidence of the change can now be seen each December, when thousands of Hispanic Catholics dance and march in downtown Phoenix to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. It can be seen in fast-growing, heavily Hispanic communities in Phoenix’s western suburbs.

Nationwide, more than 1,200 Catholic schools have closed in the past decade, usually under financial stress. Yet in the suburb of Avondale, enrollment is surging at a handsome new Catholic high school.

The school, named for Pope John Paul II, opened in 2018. About 70 percent of its 220 students are Hispanic; plans call for rapid expansion to accommodate an enrollment of 1,000.

“We’re serving people who’ve been underserved in this nation,” said the principal, Sister Mary Jordan Hoover. “These young people are trying to learn to be the next teachers, the next administrators, writers, doctors. They’re dreaming big.”

A priest marks repentance ashes on the foreheads of students from the St. John Paul II Catholic High School during Ash Wednesday Mass at the St. Thomas Aquinas church in Phoenix, Ariz., on Feb. 26, 2020. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

The hopefulness contrasts with circumstances in some other regions. Hundreds of parishes have closed in the Northeast and Midwest. The long-running clergy sex abuse scandal has forced more than 20 dioceses across the U.S. into bankruptcy since 2004, most recently in the Northeast.

The scandals haven’t spared the Southwest. The dioceses in Tucson, Arizona, and in Santa Fe and Gallup, New Mexico, are among those which declared bankruptcy.

But in states along the Mexico border, the past scandals don’t diminish the excitement over a future Hispanic-accented Catholic church. More than 400 new parishes have opened since 1970 in the border states, and many Hispanic Catholics were elated by the recent election of Mexican-born Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez as the first Hispanic president of the bishops’ conference.

“It’s the tale of two churches,” said Hosffman Ospino, a professor of Hispanic ministry at Boston College. “In Boston, I see a Catholicism that’s very reserved. In the Southwest it’s very public, very expressive.”

He said the median age for Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. is 29, compared to 55 for white non-Hispanic Catholics.

“You’ve got a lot of energy,” he said. “You’ve got people who want to be recognized and have a voice in the decisions of their church.”

Across the Southwest, there’s tension arising from the restrictive immigration policies imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Those moves have angered Catholic activists who assist migrants and trouble many Hispanics in the U.S. with relatives who lack legal immigration status.

People visit the main church at the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. It was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

“I wish our bishops would be a more solid voice denouncing this,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs a respite center for migrants in McAllen, Texas.

Looking ahead, Pimentel believes Hispanics could energize the entire U.S. church.

“One thing we haven’t lost here is the sense of community,” she said. “I hope young Catholics can sustain that and take joy in celebrating their faith. That’s the future of our church.”

A major challenge for the Catholic hierarchy: Trying to convince more young men among the booming Hispanic population to become priests.

An example of that challenge: 30-year-old Diego Piña Lopez, of Tucson. He’s devoted his life to the Catholic tenet of supporting the dignity of all people, including asylum seekers who visit Casa Alitas, the Catholic-run shelter in Tucson where he works.

Growing up in Nogales, Arizona, he sometimes considered becoming a priest, but opted instead to pursue graduate degrees in social work and public health. Why not the priesthood? “I wanted to have a family,” he said.

It’s a common response heard by Catholic recruiters.

By the latest count of the bishops’ conference, there are about 37,300 U.S.-based priests. Among them are roughly 3,000 Hispanics — more than 2,000 of them foreign-born. The number is startling small, given Hispanics’ 40 percent share of the U.S. Catholic population.

People visit the main church at the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. It was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

The gap may close, but perhaps not quickly. According to Catholic researchers at Georgetown University, 14 percent of the men scheduled to be ordained in 2019 were Hispanic — and many were foreigners.

One problem, said Hosffman Ospino, is that Hispanics in the U.S. have lagged behind other groups in regard to college-level education, limiting the pool of young men qualified for seminary.

“As long as the education levels of the Latino community are low, very few will become priests or teachers,” he said.

But even as the second and third generations of many Hispanic immigrant families do pursue higher education, other factors are at play.

“With those generations, there’s extremely heavy pressure to think more about economic success than the glory of God,” said Daniel Flores, the bishop of Brownsville, Texas. “We need to teach them the concept of service, rather than you need to earn as much as you can.”

Brownsville is among the nation’s most heavily Catholic dioceses. About half of its roughly 120 priests are Hispanic, but about two-thirds of those are foreign-born.

Flores advises recruiters to personally engage with potential seminarians and their parents.

“It’s not enough to just send them an email or announce a vocations retreat,” he said. “You need to go to invite them and learn from them.”

A man is reflected in a glass case containing a statue of a crucified Jesus Christ at the museum of the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. San Xavier was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

The Phoenix diocese’s vocation office — which recruits and supports seminarians — is headed by Father Paul Sullivan, who also ministers to an overwhelmingly Hispanic parish. Of his latest batch of 11 seminary graduates, five are U.S.-born and five are from Mexico.

Sullivan acknowledges that desires to have a family and earn money dissuade some men from considering seminary.

“Priesthood is not your average path to take,” he said.

Efforts to increase the Hispanic presence in Catholic leadership also are hampered by the school enrollment gap.

Overall enrollment in Catholic schools in the U.S. has plummeted in recent decades, from more than 5.2 million in the 1960s to about 1.73 million this year. Of the current students, only 18.5 percent are Hispanic, though Hispanics account for well over half of all school-age Catholics.

Experts cite several reasons. Many Hispanics in the U.S. come from Latin American countries where private schools, including Catholic ones, are viewed as bastions of the wealthy. With tuition averaging more than $5,000 for elementary grades and $10,000 for high school, Catholic education in the U.S. seems unaffordable to many families. And many Catholic schools are losing students to charter schools which are able to access government funds for their operations.

Volunteer Susan Gallegos talks to newly arrived asylum seekers from Central America at Casa Alitas, a Catholic-run shelter in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. In numerous cities along the border with Mexico, Catholic-run agencies are outspoken advocates for migrants and asylum seekers hoping to reach the U.S. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

All these factors are present in the Brownsville diocese, where Catholic school enrollment has dropped sharply in recent years in the face of tougher competition from charter and public schools.

One of the elementary schools fighting to maintain its enrollment is St. Mary’s Catholic School. Its principal for seven years, Ana Gomez, says 95 percent of her 350 students are Hispanic, including about 20 who cross over from Matamoros, Mexico, each school day.

She’s been able to keep enrollment stable with strategies taught by the Latino Enrollment Initiative, a program based at Notre Dame University. Tactics include ensuring that schools are culturally in sync with Hispanic families, and helping parents fit tuition into their budgets.

About 80 St. Mary’s students now get some financial aid, Gomez said.

Another participant in the Notre Dame initiative is St. Agnes Elementary School in Phoenix, where principal Christine Tax said she’s boosted enrollment from 167 to 240 in four years. The student body was two-thirds Hispanic in 2016; the figure is now 95 percent, and virtually every student receives financial aid through state-approved tax credit programs.

Tax and her staff worked with every family that applies, touting the academic prowess of Catholic schools, helping them negotiate the multiple scholarship programs, ensuring that registration packets and other school communications are available to parents in Spanish, and adding Hispanic cultural celebrations such as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the school calendar.

Volunteers give flu shots to newly arrived asylum seekers from Central America at Casa Alitas, a Catholic-run shelter in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. In numerous cities along the border with Mexico. (Credit: Dario Lopez-MIlls/AP.)

“Many low-income Hispanic families felt they were not worthy of a Catholic education,” Tax said. “We worked to make them know their children are deserving of this.”

Nationally, according to the National Catholic Education Association, less than 10 percent of the 162,000 faculty and staff at Catholic schools is Hispanic. Dioceses are trying to recruit more Hispanic teachers and, in places such as Phoenix, ensure that non-Hispanic staff speak Spanish.

Sister Mary Jordan Hoover, the principal of the new high school, is among those honing her language skills.

“I had to explain in Spanish to one woman about some problems with her son,” Hoover said. “She understood — she gave me a hug afterward.”

While the Hispanic population in the U.S. is sure to grow, the extent of the Catholic Church’s hold on them is uncertain. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. Hispanics are no longer a majority-Catholic group, with 47 percent of them calling themselves Catholic, down from 57 percent in 2009. The number identifying as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” increased from 16 percent to 23 percent; those identifying as Protestant rose from 23 percent to 26 percent.

Melba Salazar-Lucio, a professor and migrant-rights activist in Brownsville, says today’s Catholic church seems too rigid for many Hispanics. Her mother no longer attends church, she said, and her three grown children are no longer practicing Catholics.

“There are other denominations — they have more music, younger pastors who are more accepting of people’s ways,” Salazar-Lucio said. “The Catholic Church is not going to be changing with the times.”

Yet in Phoenix, Catholic traditionalists would embrace the sentiments of Juan Carlos Briones, who attended a local high school and church, and is now in seminary.

“The priests of our parish were universally admired by parishioners young and old, rich and poor,” he wrote on the diocese website. “Every Catholic youth should instinctively be open to, and not afraid of, a calling to religious life and the priesthood.”

At a migrant outreach center in Nogales, Mexico, close to the Arizona border, Jesuit priest Sean Carroll ministers every day to asylum seekers who dream of joining the ranks of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S.

“They are bringing their culture, their gifts,” he said. “The challenge for the church is to be open to receiving those gifts. How do we get them to see themselves as leaders? How do we get them to feel at home?”

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