Finding Voices for Latino Faithful


The line of waiting sinners zigzagged around the pews, past the stands of votive candles and out the door at St. Anthony Claret Church in Anaheim. The Spanish-language Mass had just ended, and Father Al Baca had been invited to dine with the Castillo family.

But first he had to hear the confessions. Patiently and attentively, Baca listened to the parishioners who needed to repent on a Saturday night. Forgive me, father. Necesito un consejo, padre. Please, give me some advice.

As the litany of sins turned into profound soul-searching, the minutes quickly became hours. At 10 p.m., three hours after the Mass had ended, the Castillos gave up.

“We were going to take him to eat, but he was too busy,” said Angelica Castillo, 12, an altar server. “At 9:40 p.m., he was still doing confessions. The church was full of people who wanted to talk to him.”


Indeed, Baca, 38, is in high demand. And so are the other 51 priests in the Diocese of Orange who speak Spanish and can work with the county’s surging Latino population. For every Spanish-speaking priest, there are 1,360 parishioners--a challenge that both taxes the diocese and has served as a catalyst for change.

The problem goes beyond simply recruiting Spanish-speaking clergy: Only priests who understand the cultural devotions and nuances of worship of recent immigrants can serve them completely, church leaders and parishioners agree. “Catholicism in Mexico is deeply meshed with the culture,” said Msgr. Jaime Soto, the diocese’s vicar for the Latino community. Priests who learn Spanish discover quickly “that you can’t speak American in Spanish. There is nothing like being able to tell a joke like they tell it in Jalisco. It can make the difference in making people feel at home, or--more importantly--in communicating the Gospel in a way that is forceful.”

The Roman Catholic Church has grappled with a priest shortage in the United States for more than a decade. Add to that the explosion of immigrant populations and the unique religious traditions and styles of worship that they bring, and the result is a multiethnic church that has been forced to diversify its ministries.

Like the Italians, Irish, Poles and Germans, Latinos are reshaping the U.S. Catholic Church, said Father Jose Gomez, executive director of the National Assn. of Hispanic Priests. There are 2,005 Latino priests in the United States and about 20 million Latino Roman Catholics, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.


The Diocese of Orange has responded by developing ethnic ministry centers. Of 152 priests, 52 speak Spanish, 17 speak Vietnamese and four speak Korean, Soto said.

But it is the Latino population, projected to outnumber all other groups in the next decade, that is the most demanding ethnic group of all, Soto said. More than 70,000 Latinos attend Mass on Sundays, compared with nearly 22,000 Vietnamese and more than 3,000 Koreans. A dozen more Spanish-speaking priests are needed to keep up with Orange County’s growth, Soto said.

And because of the youthfulness of the group, Latinos place more pastoral demands on their priests. At St. Boniface Church in Anaheim, for example, an average of 120 children are baptized a week. In addition, there are thousands of Latino Catholics seeking First Communions, confirmations and marriages--all sacraments that require weeks of spiritual preparation.

Then there are those confessions, which often go into the night. “Hispanics don’t just want to say, ‘This is my sin, please forgive me,’ ” Baca said. “They want advice, they want to talk about it. They want to be challenged. That’s very Hispanic. Priests laugh about this all of the time. A confession with a Hispanic is not a confession. It’s therapy.”

Latinos not only take longer to confess, they also want to be able to reach their priest when they need him--not just at the scheduled confession times, Gomez said.

While Filipinos show reverence to a priest by holding his hand to their foreheads, Latino parishioners opt to kiss the priest’s hand.

“To them, it is like kissing the hand of Christ, and it’s important for the priest to understand this,” Baca said. “With Americans, faith is not as obvious.”

Latinos, Father Ed Poettgen said, are always looking for consejos, or advice. As pastor of St. Polycarp Church in Stanton, Poettgen also is in charge of his parish’s Latino ministry.


“Just doing a Spanish Mass is minimal,” said Poettgen, who is fluent in Spanish. “We’re talking about a vast number of people who happen to be Catholic but who come from many different places. If you want a priest to minister to them, he needs to have a historical understanding not only of Southern California but also from where they came.”

For Poettgen, who learned Spanish in the seminary almost 20 years ago, that means visiting the native towns and cities of his parishioners. His homilies are filled with images of Mexican churches in small towns such as Jalos Totitlan, and strong expressions of Mexican faith as seen in the statue of Cristo Rey de Cubilete.

When Bolivian immigrants handed Poettgen a book about Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint to communities near Lake Titicaca, he read it cover to cover so that he could reflect the context of that important figure in his homilies.

“It’s not just what you hear with your ears but what you hear with your heart,” said Father Louis Velasquez, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. “It would be a very flat and poor expression of the mystery of Jesus to only speak the language.”

Although Marina Gordiano has moved away from Anaheim, she continues to attend Mass at St. Anthony Claret because the Mexican American priest there--Baca--relates to her 14-year-old son in a way a non-Hispanic priest could not. A Garden Grove native who was ordained 10 years ago, Baca was assigned to the parish more than a year ago.

“I think the church needs more priests like him who can make you feel the love of God in your way,” Gordiano said.

Church officials stress that they see the shortage of priests who know the language and culture of immigrants as a challenge rather than a problem.

Among steps church leaders are taking is requiring all California seminarians to learn Spanish. And a new seminary opening in Mexico City next summer will prepare Latinos whose English skills are too limited to be admitted to U.S. seminaries, Gomez said.


The church also has responded to a shortage of priests--Spanish-speaking or not--by reassessing the traditional principle that holds the priest as the single leader of the church community. Now, lay leaders and deacons are performing some of the duties of overburdened priests so that priests can concentrate on special, holy functions, Velasquez said.

“This does not diminish the ordained priest’s role, but the crisis has compelled us as a Catholic community to see that all Christians have a role in our society,” Velasquez said. “In that way, this has turned out to be a blessing.”

Poettgen and Baca agree that the church is managing due to the increasing involvement of parishioners. But Poettgen believes his relationship with parishioners is suffering because he is always running out of time.

Several years ago, Poettgen enjoyed preparing parents and godparents for the baptism of their children and engaged couples for their marriages. Now, lay leaders fill Poettgen’s shoes in those training sessions.

Poettgen also recalls a time when he was able to attend baptismal and First Communion parties at the homes of his parishioners after the sacraments were received. Now, Poettgen has to worry about his two Sunday Spanish Masses as well.

“With the volume of people, you have to do it differently, and that’s good and bad,” Poettgen said. “As far as the personal enrichment of working with people, that gets lost. If I’m doing baptisms and then I’m doing the 5:30 Mass, I can’t go to the parties. They lose out and I lose out. We all lose out in the connecting of those two things, of the celebration of such an important day.”

On the other hand, Baca, who works in a parish where all four priests speak Spanish, does not handle all of the Spanish Masses and sacraments. He balances those duties with teaching religion at the parish school, supervising the youth group and meeting with candidates for vocations.

Still, Baca recognizes that his Latino parishioners need his special attention. For them, Baca needs to be constantly visible--which is why he eats tamales with them outside the church after celebrating Spanish Masses on Sundays.

The nature of the county’s Latino community, mostly working-class immigrants, often requires that priests serve their parishioners outside the religious realm, Baca said. Sometimes there are housing issues, medical problems and educational concerns that newcomers do not know how to resolve themselves.

“We have to be ready to do that work too, because Christ has to be found in everything,” Baca said.