Father Juan Romero still remembers how, as a young priest 30 years ago, he was forbidden to give a Spanish homily to his Latino immigrant parishioners in East Los Angeles--even if they spoke nothing else.
"The idea was let them learn English," recalled Romero, now the priest at St. Clement Parish church in Santa Monica. "For some pastors, it was more important to teach English than to preach the gospel. We've come a long way, baby, since then."
Today, 80% of Romero's Westside parishioners are immigrants or their children. Most of his Masses are in Spanish, and life at his church has a decidedly immigrant heartbeat. And nowadays, Spanish proficiency is a requirement for graduation from Catholic seminaries in Los Angeles, Orange and several other California counties.
A similar demographic transformation is taking place in other U.S. immigrant hubs. Like the Irish, Poles, Italians and Germans before them, Latin Americans are reshaping the 61-million-member U.S. Catholic Church. At least 70% of the about 30 million Latinos in the United States are Roman Catholic, said Ron Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in Washington. A fifth of America's 20,000 U.S. parishes offer Spanish services, he said.
"This migration will transform the church by the next century into a predominantly Hispanic American institution, just as today it is predominantly Irish American," said Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a Loyola Marymount professor who wrote an authoritative history of U.S. Latino Catholicism, "The Second Wave."
In Los Angeles, dramatic change has already occurred, though estimates of the Latino church presence vary widely.
Louis Velasquez, director of the Los Angeles archdiocese Office of Hispanic Ministry, estimates that about 70% of the more than 4 million Catholics in the three-county Los Angeles archdiocese--America's largest--are Latinos. He says that makes it one of the largest Hispanic Catholic archdioceses in the hemisphere.
More conservative estimates range between 50% and 60%, said archdiocese spokesman Father Gregory Coiro. The presence of so many illegal immigrants in the region may contribute to an undercount of as many as 1 million Latino parishioners, he said.
Coiro said the shift, fueled by the growth of the Latino community, is a microcosm of the immigration trends that are redrawing the face of Southern California. Other emerging Catholic groups are Pacific Islanders, particularly Filipinos, and Asians, especially Koreans, Coiro said.
"The word Catholic means universal and we are one of the most--if not the most--diverse archdioceses in the world," Coiro said.
Enrollment Up at Parochial Schools
About 60% of Los Angeles' Latino Catholics speak Spanish as their primary language, Velasquez said. Spanish-language Masses are held at 187 of the archdiocese's 287 parishes, and at most of those churches they make up 80% of the services, he said. At least 15 city churches hold only one English mass a week, on Sunday, he said.
Latino immigrants also are boosting parochial school enrollment wherever they settle. The number of Latino students has risen more than 60% in the Los Angeles archdiocese since 1970, and nearly half of the city's Catholic schoolchildren now are Latino, according to church figures. Velasquez said Latino enrollment would be even higher if tuition--$100 to $130 monthly--was not too expensive for many immigrants.
Absorbing the immigrants has meant assuming assimilation and social service duties--regardless of recipients' immigration status--at a time that Californians have voted to restrict immigrant access to government services.
"Once they're here, how they got here is irrelevant to us," Coiro said. "These are human beings with dignity and needs. The church has to stand with the immigrants regardless of the reasons they came or the ways they found themselves here."
Front-line parishes provide programs such as day care, food distribution, employment counseling, legal advocacy, help with immigration paperwork and health care. Youth programs try to steer immigrant teenagers away from the urban siren call of gangs and drugs and the risk of teen pregnancy.
"We're always working on helping the people assimilate," said Father Dennis O'Neil, the parish priest of St. Thomas the Apostle in Pico-Union, where immigrants take classes in English, parenting, adult literacy and citizenship.
Some churches run shelters for new immigrants. At one downtown church, after the final Mass, 60 immigrant men lay down on pews and mats. They may stay for as long as four months while they find jobs and apartments.
"If it weren't for the church, my struggle here would be much more difficult," said Rogelio Castro Ramos, 32, a Mexican who slipped into Arizona illegally a few weeks ago and sleeps at the church while working as a day laborer.