By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 2, 2007
More than 40 years after the first contemporary Latino Catholic immigrants arrived in Atlanta, English-speaking and Spanish-speaking worshippers are still getting to know each other.
“We are strangers trying to live together in the same house. We need to accept that,” said Msgr. Luis Zarama, vicar general for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Church celebrations between the two cultures can spotlight divisions, not unity. Mass in a traditional American parish usually is a quiet affair. A Mass with Hispanic worshippers can be anything but.
Mutual understanding between local Catholics and Hispanic Catholic immigrants as they worship will become more of a necessity. Immigrants from Latin America are filling the pews in the Catholic Church across the country, fueling its growth in the future. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Hispanics, including those who are not officially registered in parishes, are estimated to make up nearly half of the parishioners. The two ordinations for the priesthood in 2007 are Hispanic men.
“The reality is there,” said Msgr. Zarama, a Colombian native and the first Hispanic priest named as a pastor in the archdiocese.
For the second year, the Hispanic Ministry Office brought in speakers to help local priests learn about Latino culture, Hispanic history in North Georgia, immigration reform. Some half dozen priests attended the three-day June workshop.
Father Steven Yander, a chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Atlanta, said parishes would benefit from talking about differences between cultures. Too often people do not appreciate the heritage that is different from their own, he said.
“We all become hardnosed,” he said.
And culture is too important to be ignored.
Martin de Jesus Martinez, of the Mexican American Cultural Center in Texas, told the group that a person’s heritage shapes how people connect with a community.
“Our culture forms how we relate to God and to others,” he said.
Catholics need to consider how they view the customs of others, Martinez said. “The Gospel becomes the measuring stick,” he said.
Other speakers included Mexican Consul General Remedios Gomez-Arnau, Colombian Consul General Camilo De Bedout Herrera, along with Father Mario Vizcaíno, who directs Hispanic ministry in the southeastern United States for the U.S. bishops and serves as provincial superior of the Piarist order.
Hispanic Catholics arrived in the Atlanta region in the early 1960s. In the first wave of immigrants were professionals and educated immigrants from Cuba fleeing the revolution led by Fidel Castro. More Latin and Central American immigrants over the years joined the church here. But numbers skyrocketed as laborers, many from rural Mexico, put down roots in Georgia.
In the mid-1990s, the Hispanic Catholic community numbered fewer than 100,000. The community has grown quickly.
“The Latino community is half of what the archdiocese is right now,” said Msgr. Zarama, adding that half the seminarians for the archdiocese are Hispanic.
In 2007, there are an estimated 650,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, including a large number of unregistered Hispanic Catholics, with 36 Hispanic priests.
The change in Atlanta mirrors the national trend in the Catholic Church.
Nearly one in three Catholics in the United States are now Latino, according to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Simply put, Latinos are in the process of transforming the nation’s religious landscape. It is a process that is still underway, a transformation that may be closer to its beginning than to its end,” Robert Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said to reporters.
With the newcomers come different styles of prayer. At first Communion celebrations Latino children have a tradition of holding a candle, and Americans do not. Spirit-filled worship is a vital component of the Hispanic community more than in a traditional Mass in America. Six in 10 Latino Catholics reported shouting, clapping, showing enthusiasm at Mass, according to the national survey.
Few corners of the archdiocese are untouched by the changes brought by the influx of Latinos.
Sacred Heart Church in Hartwell, some 115 miles northeast of Atlanta, is seeing young immigrant families enliven what was largely a parish of retired people.
Father Terry Kane said in the past three months he attended four “quinceañera” celebrations, a coming of age party for 15-year-old girls similar to a sweet 16 party. The numbers of children coming for baptism and couples for marriage have also jumped, he said.
Father Kane, who has served as pastor at the rural parish for nine years, said the Hispanic worshippers are coming out of the woodwork to worship even though he does not speak Spanish.
He celebrates Mass by reading the prayers in Spanish. Instead of delivering a homily himself, he relies on a community member to read a prepared homily written in Spanish.
At the same time, some long-time parishioners grumble. Too easily they blame Hispanic parishioners for small problems, Father Kane said. People need to remember immigrants are choosing to worship in the parishes, he said.
“They want to belong to our church,” he said.