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Catholics Fight Hispanic Conversions

Albequerque Journal
Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Catholics Fight Hispanic Conversions

By Paul Logan
Journal Staff Writer

Archbishop Michael Sheehan this week criticized some fundamentalist churches for their expanded efforts to convert Catholic Hispanics in the past decade. The leader of more than 300,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe was reacting to one of the findings in a study of Hispanic Catholics, which was commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The study of dioceses throughout the United States, which was released today, found that proselytism, or converting a person from one religion to another, has "increased dramatically" among Catholic Hispanics. Between 1990 and 1998, more than four times as many diocesan directors reported that Protestant groups were recruiting Hispanic Catholics.

Sheehan said the mainline Protestant churches have been very respectful of the Catholic Church, and it has been respectful of them. But he said some fundamentalist churches, whose religious beliefs are based on the literal interpretation of the Bible, have not shown such respect. "We don't appreciate their efforts to undermine the Catholic faith," Sheehan said. "We don't believe in trying to take a good Baptist and making them a Catholic." The study also revealed that Roman Catholic Church leaders need to increase the number of Hispanic priests and deacons, do a better job of making immigrants feel welcome and reach out more to youth.

In the past 50 years, Hispanics have climbed "from virtual anonymity to the very center of Catholic Church life," Bishop Arthur Tafoya said in a release accompanying the study. Tafoya, of Pueblo, Colo., chairs the bishops' committee on Hispanic affairs, which includes Sheehan.

Hispanics make up about 38 percent of the 62 million Catholics nationally. Within about 10 years, Hispanics will become the majority in the Catholic Church, according to the study, titled "Hispanic Ministry at the Turn of the New Millennium."

However, the study refers to a 1997 article by the Rev. Andrew Greeley that states that one of seven Hispanics has left Catholicism over the last 25 years. At that pace, Greeley wrote, half of all American Hispanics would not be Catholic in about 25 years. Sheehan said the Catholic Church has not taken Hispanics for granted. But it has a shortage of priests overall to minister to the Hispanic community when compared with the number of fundamentalist church ministers.

The archbishop said the Catholic Church only seeks fallen-away Catholics and people who aren't a part of an established church.

"We focus on Jesus and the truths of the faith," the archbishop said. "A lot of churches spend time in the pulpits running down and attacking the Catholic faith. We feel that is wrong."

Calvary Chapel, Albuquerque's largest fundamentalist church, has as its goal to point individuals to Jesus, said the Rev. Terry Willis, an assistant pastor. "We're just preaching the Gospel to anybody who will listen," Willis said. "We're not targeting anybody."

The archdiocese is preparing 81 men to become deacons to help boost Catholic leadership, Sheehan said. Thirty-five are Hispanic.

A deacon is a man who is ordained into a ministry of service. His duties include administering the sacrament of baptism, witnessing a marriage and preaching at Mass. Deacons can be married.

Also, Sheehan will ordain four more priests this spring, including three Hispanics. "All seminarians are required to study Spanish," said the archbishop, who often conducts services in both Spanish and English.

Sheehan said the study shows that "some terrifically good things" have happened in dioceses regarding Hispanic ministry.

The archdiocese is ahead of the curve nationally in serving Hispanics, especially in terms of leadership within the church, in part because it has the nation's oldest Hispanic community, Sheehan said.

For example, Hispanics serve on most parish councils, he said, "but we need to have constant vigilance about it."

Sheehan said the study showed that some places in the country have lacked the effort to make Hispanic immigrants welcome.

"We're trying locally to focus on it in a way that is more effective," he said. "I think we need to show as great a spirit of welcome and hospitality as we can so that (immigrants) know they're welcome ... a lot of improvement has been made." The archdiocese places a lot of emphasis on popular Hispanic devotions, including public processions, penitentes, pilgrimages and special veneration of the saints and Mary, such as devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"I think we can take delight in the good news the survey has found," Sheehan said. "We need to also take seriously the challenges the survey has turned up." Another challenge is improving the way the church interacts with Spanish-speaking youth.

Sheehan said the archdiocese can do a better job of helping keep students in school, instilling in youth strong spiritual values and helping them stay away from trouble. "We reach some," Sheehan said, "but we're failing to reach as many as we should."


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