For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church and the culture of the Latino people have been mutually inclusive. Walking through the house of a Mexican family, it would be rare not to find a shrine of some sort dedicated to la Virgen de Guadalupe. Latinos of all stripes usually deck their houses, even their cars, with Catholic symbols rosaries, candles, statues, etc. Despite the centuries-old cultural identity between the Catholic Church and the Hispanic community, it is a sad fact that many Latinos are leaving the Church in favor of Protestant churches. Often, the passionate-natured Latino sees the more emotive and feeling-oriented Protestant communities as a welcome change from the “dogmatic” and “rigid” Catholic Church in which they were raised. Many Latinos, while remaining “Catholic,” have fallen away from practicing their faith. To effectively reach such individuals, the Church ought to stress the importance of the sacraments in cultivating a personal relationship with Christ.
In the minds of these Latinos, a “personal relationship” with Christ, so often touted by Protestant churches, takes greater prominence than Catholic doctrine seemingly detached from present circumstances. For many Latinos who grew up in the Church, theology focused more on the “thou shall nots” than the basics of forming a relationship with Jesus Christ. In order to address this challenge, dioceses which have a significant number of Latinos may want to look at how the Church is being presented to the Hispanic community. It must be stressed that a personal relationship with Christ is indeed possible in (and intrinsic to) the Catholic Church. It must be demonstrated that this relationship is most perfectly realized within the Church through the richness of her sacraments.
Proper catechesis is important, but the teachings of the Church must be made relevant to the individual life of the average Latino. They must be reminded that Church teaching and dogma are not archaic or unrelated to the realities of the present. Such teaching exists for the purpose of building and reinforcing a personal relationship with Christ. Although Church teaching does not change, how that teaching is passed on to different people and different cultures is important to remember. What the Church teaches must not be thought of merely as “rules” meant to repress or restrict, but rather as a means in which one comes to know, love and serve Christ. Far from repressing human nature, Church teaching is passed on so that people may fully realize happiness as children of God. A personal relationship with Christ is the most fundamental purpose of human existence. This is what the Catholic Church has always taught. Latinos need to hear this from the pulpit and be assisted in forming this intimate relationship. A friendship with Christ is not based solely on an emotional high, but is sustained by a consistent prayer life, which is fed by the sacraments of the Church. Protestants are admirable for their fervent prayer life, but Catholics must be reminded of the richness of and need for the sacraments, which are unique to the Catholic Church.
James Maldonado-Berry writes frequently on church-state and Catholic youth-related issues. This fall he will be studying communications in Rome, Italy. His blog can be found at www.catholicyouth.blogspot.com.