Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Remarks at CALL (Catholic Association of Latino Leaders) Conference
Houston, Texas
Aug. 16, 2014

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Before we start, we should remember for a moment the drama taking place on our southern border, where so many undocumented immigrants — many of them very young – are stuck in an ugly kind of limbo. Good people can disagree about the best way to reform immigration policy. And the current crisis puts members of our law enforcement agencies in very difficult moral dilemmas and often physical danger.

But saying that doesn’t solve our problems.  There’s simply no excuse for the suffering of children and families.  And both of our political parties helped create the current border disaster by their inaction, stubbornness and cynicism.  So I hope each of us will find time today to pray for the young people caught in our immigration mess, and also for the officials who need to deal with this reality quickly and humanely.

So with that in mind, let’s begin.  One of our commitments as Catholics is to help create a just and wholesome society.  And sometimes the best way to move forward as a culture is to look back first.  Here’s an example of what I mean.

During the 12th century a group called the Cathars became one of the most disruptive social movements in Europe.  The name “Cathar” comes from the Greek word katharoi, which means “pure ones.”  The Cathars began as religious dissenters.  That can sound harmless to modern ears.  But their beliefs had deeply destructive implications for the fabric of medieval society.

The Cathars believed in a kind of hyper-Puritanism.  They held that all matter was corrupt.  They argued that the human body and all human authority were infected with evil.  As a result, for the Cathars, a morally good life demanded a radical rejection of marriage, family life, civil authority and the Church.  In effect, Cathar doctrine held that the human species should stop reproducing in order to liberate itself from the stain of created matter.

Today, some 800 years later, Cathar beliefs can sound much too strange for anyone to take seriously.  But in their time, the Cathars had great popular appeal.  They also lived their convictions simply and zealously.  And in doing that, they became a danger not only to the Church, but to Europe’s whole economic and political order.  Many of Europe’s princely leaders pressed the Pope to act against the heresy.  And they eventually joined together in the so-called “Albigensian Crusade” – an ugly and bloody struggle; the only crusade fought in the European heartland – to stamp out the Cathar community.

But the Cathars were hard to eliminate.  Both in northern Italy, and in central and southern France, the exemplary simplicity, poverty and asceticism of Cathar disciples appealed to many people who had grown disgusted with the corruption of the Catholic clergy.

Catharism eventually collapsed.  But its collapse didn’t come from a successful crusade or a reform of Church doctrine.  These were important factors, but not decisive.  The enduring defeat of the Cathar heresy came at the hands of a single, unlikely man: Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, who after his conversion entered history as St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis and his disciples, the Franciscans, sparked a spiritual revolution by the zeal and purity of their Christian witness that gradually eclipsed the Cathar heresy and renewed the whole Christian Church.

Francis and his brothers in faith were then — and they remain today — a confirmation of how God renews the Church through a kind of gentle rebellion against the world; an uprising of personal holiness; a radical commitment to Christian poverty, chastity and obedience in service to the Church and the poor.

The Franciscan revolution of love teaches a lesson that Catholics too often forget.  Rules, discipline, and fidelity to doctrine and tradition are vital to the mission of the Church.  But none of them can animate or sustain Catholic life if we lack the core of what it means to be a Christian.  If we really want God to renew the Church, then we need to act like it.  We need to take the Gospel seriously.  And that means we need to live it as a guide to our daily behavior and choices – without excuses.

Christian discipleship is not about how generous we feel, or our good intentions, or even how well we do certain religious duties.  It’s about being converted in our lives according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.

What might this imply for members of CALL in these years of our first Latino Pontiff, a man “from a far country” who deliberately chose the name Francis?

For American Catholics, our nation’s so-called “Hispanic issue” is much more than just a matter of immigration policy.  The “Latino issue” is, in fact, a key to the future of the Catholic Church in our country.  And the reason is simple.  Demography is destiny.

Nonetheless, it’s stunning to see how little attention most Americans pay to a part of our population that currently includes half of our Millennials – young persons between 14 and 34 years old.

The Pew Foundation earlier this year conducted one of the most thorough surveys to date about Latinos and religion[i]. Here are some key results of that study:

• Most Hispanics in the United States continue to belong to the Catholic Church. But the Catholic share of the Hispanic population is dropping, with many Hispanics self-describing as Protestant or unaffiliated with any religion. Nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24 percent) are now former Catholics.

• Only about 55 percent of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Latino adults now identify as Catholic. About 22 percent are Protestant and 18 percent are religiously unaffiliated.

• On average, Hispanic evangelicals – many of whom also identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic Protestants – not only report higher rates of church attendance than Hispanic Catholics, but they also tend to be more engaged in other religious activities, including Scripture reading, Bible study groups and sharing their faith.

• Today, fewer than half of Hispanics younger than age 30 are Catholic (45 percent), compared to about two-thirds of those aged 50 and older (64 percent).

•  Most Latinos 50 and older who abandon the Catholic Church tend to become Protestant, but – in contrast — the vast majority of Latino Millennials who leave tend to become “unaffiliated.”

• When asked why they abandoned the Catholic faith, 55 percent of Latinos say they just gradually “drifted away” from the religion in which they were raised or simply “stopped believing.”  Some 63 percent of former Catholic Latinos who are now unaffiliated and 57 percent of former Catholics who are now Protestants gave these same reasons for having left the Church.

Ironically, while the percentage of Hispanics who identify as Catholic has been dropping, Hispanics continue to make up an increasingly large share of U.S. Catholics. As of 2013, one-third of all U.S. Catholics were Hispanic.  The growing number of Hispanics, with many of these among the younger Millennial population, means that the Church in the United States will continue to look more and more Hispanic.

And precisely because of America’s changing demography, the election of Pope Francis will almost certainly have lasting significance for the Catholics in the United States.

We’ve all heard about the so-called “Francis effect.” Around the world, it seems to be real and enduring.  In the Pope’s native Argentina, Mass attendance has nearly doubled, overwhelming church capacities. Other Latin American countries, from Chile to Mexico, have seen an increase in Mass attendance ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent.

In Spain, the national bishops’ conference has tracked a growth in Mass attendance of close to 20 percent and a spike in financial donations of 90 percent – a remarkable fact if we consider the high level of unemployment Spain currently suffers. In Italy, sociologist Massimo Introvigne noted recently that although Mass attendance has grown only 15 percent, the number of people looking for priestly advice or the Sacrament of Penance has jumped 75 percent.

In the United States, secular media have tended to downplay the “Francis effect” since American church attendance has changed very little.

But I’d argue that the “Francis effect” is very relevant to the United States.  Why?  Because the election of a Latin American Pope dramatically highlights the importance of the Latino community in our country, and it practically shouts out an invitation for Catholic Latino leadership.

I believe we are at a very powerful “Latino moment” in our Church — a moment that takes nothing away from the dignity or importance of any other ethnic community, but that simply acknowledges, again, that demography is destiny.

Another recent national study of young people and religion, this one by Notre Dame social researcher Christian Smith and his colleagues, focused on former Catholics between 18 and 23 in the United States.[ii]   In it, the authors write “in most instances, within the Hispanic Catholic population, we [have observed] a move from more practices and traditional beliefs to fewer practices and traditional beliefs as the emerging adults are generationally removed from immigration.”

The key word in the Smith study is “practices.”  Latinos tend to be profoundly devotional. It’s impossible to visit a Latin American country without constantly encountering Catholic symbols in the public square. We can see this again and again in the many public religious processions of Mexico, in the ubiquitous religious statues in Peruvian parks, and in the Argentine soccer narrator who prayed the Hail Mary out loud on national television during the latest World Cup games to make absolutely sure that the Swiss team would fail to score a goal in the final minutes of the match. Can you imagine any ESPN narrator saying any prayer on national television in favor of any American national team?

Again, Latino faith is deeply devotional — and thus, it reflects a profound reverence for the mysteries of Catholic belief; a reverence that is moving, and in many ways, exemplary.

Many North American bishops will admit that most of our practicing Catholics are catechized but not well evangelized. Catholics in Canada and the United States may know the “lyrics of the song,” but they don’t always know the tune.

In contrast, most Latinos Catholics have a deep sense of God’s grandeur, and it makes them very aware that they may not be worthy to receive Communion.  In fact, unlike our usual American Masses in which everybody, row after row, receives Communion almost robotically, at a Hispanic Mass many people remain in their seats, conscious that the prayer “Lord I am not worthy to receive you…,” applies directly and intimately to them.

Unfortunately, many Latino Catholics in the United States – Latinos who don’t find the devotional Catholic presence in the American public square that they relied on in their home countries for emotional and moral support – lack sufficient knowledge of their faith to survive in a highly secular and commercial culture.

In a sense, we can say that many Latinos have been evangelized, but not sufficiently catechized. In other words, to continue an imperfect metaphor, they may know the tune of their Catholic faith, but not the lyrics.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to these problems.  I’m very grateful that you members of CALL have had several days of reflection and many more competent speakers than me to help you consider how to deal with these issues.

But I do have a few tasks that I’d like to suggest as priorities.

I believe that Pope Francis has opened for us – we Catholics in the United States – a crucial window of opportunity. More than ever, Latinos, who have traditionally loved the Catholic Church, should feel that the Church is their home and they have a vital role in her mission.

This is what Pope Francis has to say in Evangelii Gaudium: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice . . . Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved.”[iii]

So how can we try “a little harder”?

First, we bishops can better serve and attract Latino Catholics to the Liturgy, simply by providing more Masses in Spanish.  Nearly half of Latino Catholics prefer to attend Spanish-language Masses, especially when the Liturgy is celebrated with genuine beauty and dignity.  As Pope Francis says: “The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the Liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving”[iv].

No less important is the need to teach our faith, in all its appealing splendor, so that our Latino brothers and sisters get to own more profoundly the substance of what we believe.  A vast majority of the Latino community cries with the same longing and frustration that the Ethiopian royal servant expressed to Philip in the Acts of the Apostles: “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”[v]

Finally, I have a challenge that I’d like to pose to all of you as CALL members, each of whom I value as a friend: Ask yourselves if you’re really putting all your talents, all your efforts, and also your material resources into making sure that Latino Catholics receive appropriate formation; from the most basic catechesis, to the preparation of our senior lay leaders, to the education of our future Hispanic priests.

To you, who’ve chosen to assume before God and the believing Catholic community a role as leaders, applies more than ever the encouraging words of Pope Francis: “We should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel”[vi].

I pray that you will become what God intends you to be — messengers and guardians who will seize this unique opportunity, so that the American Latino Catholic community, guided by the Holy Spirit, inspired by Pope Francis, and led by your energy and joy, will mark the dawn of a new Catholic witness in this, the nation we share and love.

Thanks, and God bless you.


[i] The Pew survey was conducted May 24-July 28, 2013, among a representative sample of 5,103 Hispanic adults (ages 18 and older) living in the United States. See “The shifting religious identity of Latinos in the United States.”

[ii] “Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church”, Christian Smith, Oxford University Press, 2014.

[iii] Evangelii Gaudium, 24

[iv] Evangelii Gaudium, 24

[v] Acts 8:31

[vi] Evangelii Gaudium, 168