Pastoral Plan addresses growing Hispanic community

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

During his fall trip to the U.S., Pope Francis encouraged Americans to reject their fear of foreigners “because most of us were once foreigners.” 
In his address to Congress on Sept. 24, 2015, the pope said, “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities … Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”
This same mindset is shared by Bishop Joe Vásquez and the Austin Diocese, which has launched a Pastoral Plan that addresses the challenges and opportunities of the growing Hispanic population within the boundaries of the diocese, some 25 Central Texas counties. 
“The term ‘Hispanic’ doesn’t really do justice to the diversity within that community,” says Edgar Ramirez, director of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese. The term ‘Hispanic,’ was created by the Census Bureau. But it does not embrace the diversity that comes within the Latino community. Mexico, alone, has almost 30 languages.”
He said the term Hispanic can mean of or relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries or it can mean a Spanish-speaking person living in the U.S.
Statistics
The Census Bureau estimates that by 2017, the Hispanic population is projected to double the number identified in the 2000 Census. In light of this, the diocesan Hispanic Ministry office has been charged with a specific task.
“The mission is to serve as the central point of integration and administration of the ministerial needs of the Hispanic people. We want to ensure that their talents, resources, culture and faith are incorporated into the diocesan church,” says Ramirez, who has served as director for the last four years,
Every initiative of the Pastoral Plan answers the question of how it will serve Hispanic Catholics. According to Ramirez, the majority of the diocesan Hispanic community come from Mexico, and some are second- or third- generation immigrants who prefer speaking English. Though many Hispanic immigrants are active Catholics, some remain unregistered. According to a recent survey conducted by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), 62 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics are registered in their local parish, while 45 percent of Hispanic Catholics are registered.
“Our diocesan directory lists 1,643 families, but the reality is far greater than that,” says Father Pedro Garcia-Ramirez of the Santa Teresa Parish in Bryan, who uses the term “Mexican-American” to distinguish those born in the U.S. of Mexican descent, from “Hispanic” or “Latino,” which includes all of those who have come from Mexico or Latin American countries.
“We are fully aware that culturally and historically, Hispanics are not used to registering for membership in order to consider themselves as part of a given parish; therefore, in my estimation, we probably have over 4,000 families at Santa Teresa,” Father Garcia-Ramirez adds.
Santa Teresa is the only parish in the Bryan-College Station area “offering a full scope of Spanish ministries,” he says. The result is that many people travel to Santa Teresa from the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese and the Tyler Diocese. In an effort to recognize their unique cultural values, Santa Teresa emphasizes Hispanic traditions and devotions such as Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead, Nov. 2), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), and Rosca de Reyes (Jan. 6). 
“Hispanics are encouraged to keep and foster their values, while at the same time to be open to welcoming the good moral and spiritual values of the American culture,” says Father Garcia-Ramirez. “This is not an easy thing to do because not every value in the Hispanic culture is morally sound, but the same applies to the American culture. Therefore, for Hispanic families to be able to distinguish and be selective about those values becomes a challenge to adapting to living in Central Texas. The parish setting is a good testing ground for this process to take place.”
Integration
Deacon Steve Pent, who serves at St. William Parish in Round Rock, says the challenge, is to integrate everyone. St. William was founded in 1916 by Spanish-speaking families meeting for Mass in the Francisco Carlin home, and continues today to embrace a growing Hispanic community, that includes parishioners from Guatemala, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru. St. William currently offers 20 Spanish-speaking ministries, and two Spanish Masses each Sunday, while providing bilingual priests and staff, three Spanish-speaking deacons, with currently two Spanish-speaking men in diaconate formation. 
“Parishes are seeing that having a Spanish Mass is more about the community reaching out to the members within their boundaries, rather than creating a separate group,” says Ramirez, who points out that almost 60 parishes in the Austin Diocese have Hispanic ministries. 
Encounter
The Pastoral Plan’s vision is to help everyone within the diocese encounter Christ in a way that leads to transformation. Effective outreach to the Hispanic community means a parish must “do their homework,” according to Ramirez, who has been director of Hispanin Ministry since 2011. 
“Father John Guzaldo of St. Louis Parish in Waco invited me a year ago to discern with him to see if he should start a Spanish Mass. When I asked him why, he said, ‘because every morning when I take my dog for a walk, the only people I see are Hispanic.’ This is an example of realizing the needs of the community, of the parish doing their homework,” Ramirez says.
More than a year ago, Father Guzaldo and a small team of parishioners began canvasing the neighborhoods surrounding St. Louis Parish, distributing church bulletins and religious materials, and inviting former and inactive Hispanic Catholics to attend Spanish Mass.
“It is important just to be able to stand before God and say, ‘we asked, we knocked, and we invited them,’” Father Guzaldo says. “This is what we’ve been asked to do by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict.”
Personal experience
Sandra Gonzalez has been a parishioner of Santa Teresa for almost 20 years. She was born in Mexico, and later moved with her parents to Eagle Pass, which is on the border of Piedras Negras, Coahuila Mexico. The family successfully found a Spanish-speaking Catholic Church in the area, and Gonzalez’ hardworking parents made certain that she and her five sisters and two brothers received the sacraments. However, Gonzalez recalls that attending an English-speaking school as a Spanish-speaking Catholic made it difficult for her to blend the two cultures.
“I found myself wanting to learn, but my parents at home spoke Spanish, and didn’t understand what I was learning. Then, you go to Mass and the priest tells you how God sees everybody equal. But you go to school where not everybody is treated equally. God sees you one way, but society sees you another,” says Gonzalez, who credits her priest, and a very special religious sister, with helping her finally overcome language and cultural barriers.
“I was very fortunate to go to a church where the priest, himself, spoke both languages,” Gonzalez says. “And I’ll never forget a nun who gave us catechism, and who understood our language. She told us stories and lullabies in Spanish, which helped us relate. She made me feel like I was at home, like this was something I could trust.”
Over the next five years, the Pastoral Plan seeks to educate parishes, schools, and ministries concerning the diversity of cultures in the Austin Diocese, with particular attention concentrated on the needs of the burgeoning Hispanic community. Ramirez says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers resources such as “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers” and “Best Practices for Shared Parishes” to help parishes navigate the waters of ministering to diverse populations.
Father Garcia-Ramirez says, “The language barrier is but one stumbling block, and there are many others … Some of the greatest barriers are the socio-political, economic and educational status of Mexican-Americans and Hispanics. It will take years to help families and individuals understand each other’s realities, be willing to co-exist, and create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, acceptance, and respect. A slow and tedious ministry, but not an impossibility, with God’s help.”
For more information on Hispanic Ministry in the Austin Diocese, contact Edgar Ramirez at (512) 949-2468 or edgar-ramirez@austindiocese.org.