Austin parish blends ministries, builds families

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

Engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are the famous words of poet Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...” Penned in 1883, her words still resound as millions of immigrants yearning for freedom journeyed to the U.S. during the 20th century, sometimes risking their lives in pursuit of the American dream. 
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one of the fastest growing populations in the 21st century is Hispanic, which the government defines as Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or of other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
Hispanics now represent more than 50 percent of all Catholics in the U.S., said Edgar Ramirez, diocesan director of Hispanic Ministry. This is why the U.S. bishops have called the V Encuentro, which is a four-year process in which the whole church engages in reflection and action that invites all Catholics to intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and identification of best ministerial practices in the spirit of the New Evangelization and the cultural diversity in our parishes. (To learn more visit http://vencuentro.org/.) 
Hispanics Catholics are heavily concentrated in the southwest, particularly in Texas and along the Mexican border. 
“In our diocese, Hispanic Catholics represent more than 40 percent of the people we are currently serving in our parishes,” Ramirez said.
Thus one of the main goals of the diocesan Pastoral Plan is implementing ways to better serve the needs of Hispanic Catholics. The five-year plan seeks to help all have “an encounter with Christ that leads to transformation.”
One parish meeting the needs of the growing Hispanic Catholic population in Austin is Sacred Heart Parish, which has seen much growth since 2012, when Father Mark Hamlet, the current pastor, arrived. Established in 1959, Sacred Heart Parish was originally, “a majority Anglo, with a lot of university professors, IBM executives, and engineers,” Father Hamlet said. “In the 90s, it switched to a mostly Hispanic congregation.” 
Today, almost 3,000 parishioners attend Spanish Masses, and 1,600 youth are in the religious education program. The parish is debt-free, with a 12 percent increase in giving, and a total revenue increase of 68 percent. When Father Hamlet arrived in 2012, he recognized that the financial condition of the parish was critical, but the emotional state of the parishioners was worse.
“They saw themselves as poor, they were told they were poor, and there was consequently dysfunction, and it wasn’t a hopeful environment. Hope was not something you found at the parish,” said Father Hamlet, who added that an estimated 70 percent of the adults may be undocumented immigrants.
In 2013, Hispanics comprised the second-largest ethnic group in Texas, Father Hamlet said. “It most likely has to do with birth rates, rather than immigration. Our Masses are very, very noisy because of all the little kids running around.”
Family is at the heart of the diocesan Pastoral Plan, which states that, “Family life should be the lens through which ministry … ought to focus.” The family-oriented culture of the Hispanic community has inspired Sacred Heart Parish to generate more family-focused ministries like “Pro-Family,” which partnered with the St. John Paul II Life Center in Austin to offer a Pro-Life/Pro-Family Fair in 2015 that drew more than 2,000 people.
“By changing Pro-Life to Pro-Family we completely changed the approach to pro-life,” Father Hamlet said. “Bringing the family back together encompasses all pro-life activities.”
Sacred Heart also provides Boy, Cub, and Girl Scout programs, which are held on the same night each week to accommodate the needs of large families and single parents. Sacred Heart Parish has the largest Hispanic Scouting program in Central Texas, and at one time was designated the 11th fastest growing Cub Scout program in the nation. 
“Scouting is a fabulous, Catholic-friendly environment for our families. When we present them with family-oriented solutions and ministries, these and the parish become their ‘field hospitals’ as Pope Francis would say,” Father Hamlet said.
Income and educational opportunities remain a barrier to many Hispanics, according to Father Hamlet, who indicated that the Hispanic population earns 60 to 70 percent of the yearly medium income of Caucasians, and high school graduation rates for Hispanics are typically much lower, as well. Sacred Heart Parish supplies a tuition fund for disadvantaged families, and currently sends almost 100 children to Catholic schools.
“I tell them I know why they came to this country … for hope,” Father Hamlet said. “I tell them there is not much more I can do to help them have hope beyond the sacraments, hope for their eternal life, and a Catholic education, hope for their children.” 
He also said the parish is blending into one church, rather than having “two communities using the same parish facilities as if they were two separate communities, not one parish.” 
Although there are Masses in two languages, Sacred Heart has only one liturgy, and all liturgical ministers — including lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers and others — train together, rather than separately. There is one Religious Education program, one Parish Council, and one Finance Council; bulletins are printed and the website is published in both English and Spanish. Building trust through financial transparency and forming ministries aimed at family and spiritual growth, without creating artificial boundaries between cultures and people has been the goal of Sacred Heart Parish.
“As Catholics, this is what we should be offering to our poorest immigrants. If we don’t do this, very soon Austin will become poorer and less-educated,” Father Hamlet said. “As Catholics we have choices. We have hope. We must offer hope.”