Friday, September 19, 2014

Latino Catholicism

Many people may know that Catholics represent the largest religious group in the United States. With 78 million baptized members, the Catholic Church hosts nearly five times as many members as the next largest Christian denomination.[1] But isn’t it shrinking? Despite the general impression of an aging and waning Catholic presence, many are surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is one of the few growing segments of the American church.

What? How?

The answer is simple. Latino Catholics.[2]

Historically speaking, Latino Catholics have lived in what is now the United States for twice as long as this great nation has even existed.[3] So, in a sense, they’ve always been here. Mexican Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century did not have to cross the border at all, rather “the border crossed them” as U.S. territorial expansion encompassed much of what is now the Southwest United States. In an instant, these Mexican natives became “foreigners in their own land,” enduring the systematic disestablishment of their political agency, economic well-being, and religious faith.

In a complex demographic evolution dating all the way back to 1511, the religious map of the United States has always included large numbers of Latino Catholics.[4] Though this probably represents one of the most unspoken chapters of U.S. history, “The origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic,” notes Timothy Matovia, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. By 1850, the Catholic Church had become the largest denomination in the United States, aided by the great famine in Ireland and revolution in the Germanic states. And the growth continues into our own era.

Today, over a third of U.S. Catholics are Latino. In the Southwest, Latino presence is even greater, representing over half of the Catholic population. Matter of fact, they are the only reason that Catholicism is holding its own. “Without the ever-growing number of Latinos in this country,” Matovia states, “the U.S. Catholic population would be declining at a rate similar to mainline Protestant groups.”

So what will the Catholic Church in the U.S. look like in the future? According to a recent study, the Catholic Church is well on its way to “becoming a majority-Latino institution” in this country.[5] Furthermore, when we add that two-thirds of Catholics under the age of thirty-five who attend church regularly are Latinos, we know that the face of the future of U.S. Catholicism is a young, U.S.-born Hispanic. The question now becomes, how will we respond?  In future posts, I will be exploring the unique features of Latino Catholicism and how Young Life continues to build the kingdom in its pursuit of "every kid, everywhere, for eternity."

[1] There are 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States.
[2] While I will employ the term “Latino Catholics” or “Hispanic Catholics,” it must be stressed that this cannot be understood as a homogeneous group. Notre Dame professor, Timothy Matovia, notes, “Although ‘Latino Catholics’ may be a convenient term . . . the idea of a generic Latino Catholic is no more useful than that of a generic African, Asian, European, or Native American Catholic.” See Timothy Matovina, Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), ix.
[3] Ibid, 7.
[4] “The first diocese in the New World was established in 1511 at San Juan, Puerto Rico, now a commonwealth associated with the United States. Subjects of the Spanish Crown founded the first permanent European settlement within the current borders of the fifty states at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, four decades before the establishment of Jamestown”(Matovina, 7).
[5] Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What Will We Do When Christianity Loses Its Respectability?

Tasha and I were in Seattle over the weekend to celebrate the wedding of one of my first “Young Life kids”. He was a junior in high school when we met. And now, after 15 years, he’s “all grown up” and entering into the fore of adult life – a job, a house, a boat, a wife (who incidentally crashed the boat and still managed to garner his lifelong commitment of love). It was a beautiful experience, owing to the Christ-centered focus of the entire wedding, being able to reconnect with dear friends, enjoying the stunning Seattle weather, and (last but not least) the thrill of one drop-top Chevy Camaro.

The Pacific Northwest is often referred to as one of the most unchurched regions of the country and it certainly doesn’t take long for any wide-eyed observer to note the prevailing secular “tone” there. Yet the non-religious drift of American society is certainly not limited to dreary Seattleites and waterlogged Portlanders. Matter of fact, it is America’s Northeast and not the Northwest that dons the particular honor of “most unlikely to attend church.” A Gallup poll shows that while 32% of Washingtonians regularly go to church, only 23% of Vermont natives ever shadow the doorway of a Christian establishment.[1]

As the US experiences the precarious “rise of the nones” (those with no religious affiliation – currently 1 in 5 adults, 1 in 3 under 30), I wonder if this is but a foretaste of the religious estrangement that we’re seeing in places like the UK?  Americans might be aghast when only a quarter of their residents round up the kids and drag them to church on any given Sunday, but Brits might interpret those numbers as some sort of religious revival. In a country where only 6% of the population regularly attends church, American religiosity is more than curious, it is bizarre.


It is not so odd that so many Americans go to church. What is most peculiar is that so many of these Christian practitioners are not really Christian believers. Whether you’re talking about Catholics, of whom only 60% believe in a personal God at all, or those Christians whose church attendance is less an act of public worship than it is good publicity, it seems that the “respectability” of Christian allegiance is still a pervading force in the United States.

Francis Spufford, acclaimed English author (and practicing Christian) notes:

The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous – or respectable, or serious, or community-minded – is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment, for embarrassment is one of the most powerfully motivating emotions in British culture.[2]

What was interesting about being at a Christian wedding in Seattle was that nearly every person we talked to had a Young Life story. Virtually every conversation we had with a practicing Christian in the Northwest had some connection to Young Life – they had been to camp at Malibu or Washington Family Ranch, they went through Leadership at UW, they attended Club or Campaigners, etc. Somehow Young Life strengthened their spiritual life in a place where religious belief and practice is marginal at best.

One only wonders how pivotal Young Life’s approach will be – going where they are, earning the right to be heard, proclaiming the central message of the gospel in a winsome and relevant way – as the secular drift of American culture leaks increasingly from the Northeast and Northwest into the rest of the country. I can’t help but think that Young Life’s pioneering spirit is paving the way for the Church as it’s call for the new evangelization is confronted with the widening birth of secularism. It’s a thought that hasn’t escaped the pope himself:

In the Gospel there’s the beautiful passage about the shepherd who realizes that one of his sheep is missing, and he leaves the ninety-nine to go out and find the one. But, brothers and sisters, we have only one. We’re missing ninety-nine![3]

So what will we do when Christian respectability and that old-school sense of church obligation lose their hold in American culture? What will we do when ninety-nine have left the flock? “With our faith we must create a ‘culture of encounter,’” Pope Francis says, “a culture of friendship in which we can speak with those who think differently.”[4] “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.”[5] It’s working for Young Life in some of the most secularized segments of our country. Maybe, just maybe, it will work for the wider Church and her mission to the world.

[1] See
[2] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising, Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), vii.
[3] See
[4] Pope Francis, vigil of Pentecost 2013.
[5] Antonio Spadaro, S.J., “A Heart Open to God,” America (September 30, 2013).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Catholic Schools: Are They Worth It?

Last week we dropped Jackson (5) and Addie Rose (2) off at school – equipped with new shoes, new backpacks, and lots of prayer from their parents! We made the decision to send our kids to Catholic school, not because we’re on this hyper-academic, ace their ACTs and get-them-into-Harvard track. Sure, it’s a National Blue Ribbon School but that’s not why we’re sending them there.[1] The Catholic high school in town has racked up 38 state championships in the last 21 years, but that doesn’t really do it for us.[2] So why Catholic school?

Catholic schools are not mere college-prep stepping-stones toward elite colleges and high-paying jobs. Athletics are great and we’ll surely encourage our kids to participate, but state championships do not define Catholic witness. For us, the decision to send our kids to this particular Catholic school came down to two things: Jesus and discipleship.

What impresses us most about St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School is that making intentional, mission-minded disciples of Jesus Christ is the priority that informs everything they do. The school’s mission is the same as the parish’s mission – to build up a community of disciples who celebrate, live and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.[3] “We take seriously our commitment to family, stewardship and academic excellence,” says Julie Delaney, principal of the school. “But at the end of the day, we want these students to leave here as strong, intentional, missionary disciples of Jesus. St. Paul the Apostle is first and foremost a Catholic school focused on building up the kingdom of God. This is our defining mission.”

And that’s not just a message coming down from the top. From the principal’s office (which Jackson visited on his first day of school – long story but it had something to do with him looking for a raccoon) to the lunchroom ladies, this particular Catholic school is unequivocally committed to Jesus and the abundant life that can be found only in him.  “We can give these kids so much more of a foundation that just reading, writing, and math. We can give them the ultimate foundation of life – Jesus Christ,” notes Monica Burchett (who has the distinct privilege/punishment of serving in Jackson’s kindergarten class – pray for her).   

Luke Ebener, the Catholic youth minister serving both parish and school, can always be found among kids – sharing a meal in the lunchroom, playing kickball on the playground, or talking to kids waiting for buses. Luke’s passion is Christ and everything he does flows out of his relationship with God. “I just can’t imagine going back to life without Jesus, because He is life!” Luke says with enthusiasm. Luke had the opportunity to see the ministry of Young Life up close this summer as a participant in the Catholic Adult Guest Week at Timber Wolf Lake. While he admitted that the music was a little louder and the games a little crazier than your typical church camp, “The bottom line is the youth loved it! They heard the Gospel and it hit them right where they were at. It broke down walls and allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts and lives. It opened my eyes to reaching youth in a whole new way.”

Luke, Monica and Julie spend their time pouring into kids, not simply to teach them math, science and social studies, but to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ, the one that changed their lives and they one they’re convinced will change the lives of kids like Jackson and Addie forever. Makes me wonder, “What if every Catholic school was just as excited about forming intentional disciples of Jesus?”

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Pope Benedict XVI

[1] For more information about National Blue Ribbon Schools see
[2] Assumption High School in Davenport has won 42 state team championships since its founding, 38 in the last 21 years. This doesn’t include a slew of state titles won by individuals in cross country, golf, wrestling, track and field, cheer and dance.
[3] For a complete list of the guiding values of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, see my previous post, “What Are Catholics All About?” at: