On Jan. 9, 2017, I was at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio speaking to a group of second-year theology students from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.
The seminarians were there for an intensive immersion program called “Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century.” One goal of the program is to “explore the lived experiences of Hispanics in relationship to the Catholic Church and our U.S. society.”
I have done this for several years. My task is to provide an overview of how Hispanic Catholics are transforming the U.S. Catholic experience. The future priests, who come from several dioceses in the country, will likely serve in communities with large Hispanic populations.
One important point I share in this presentation is that Hispanics have been in the U.S. territory for nearly five centuries, making significant contributions to church and society, and witnessing our Catholic faith amid a diversity of circumstances — many of them adverse.
Many remarkable Hispanic Catholics leaders have emerged during this time — priests, vowed religious and laypeople — yet by the middle of the 20th century, only a handful had risen through the ranks of church structures to serve in key decision-making positions.
It was not until 1970 that the first U.S.-born, Mexican-American priest was consecrated as a Catholic bishop: Patricio Flores.
A native of Texas, he was ordained for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, then appointed as an auxiliary bishop of San Antonio. He became the bishop of El Paso in 1978, and returned to San Antonio as its fourth archbishop in 1979. He served in this capacity until his retirement in 2004.
Being the first U.S.-born Hispanic bishop in U.S. Catholic history was much more than a regular ecclesiastical appointment. It represented a shift in ecclesial consciousness, and Bishop Flores knew that.
On the one hand, it meant that Hispanic Catholicism was not to be perceived as a foreign experience, but a true expression of U.S. Catholicism, sustained by the rich Hispanic traditions that continue to take root in our country.
On the other hand, it meant that the institutional church would relate to Hispanic Catholics in fresher ways. Hispanic Catholics are not merely passive objects of pastoral action, but active agents of evangelization modeling creative ways of being in relationship with Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Flores reminds us of another iconic figure in U.S. Catholic history who embodied similar shifts, namely Archbishop John Carroll. In the early years of the U.S. nation, the chosen leader for the first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, signaled that U.S. Catholicism would have a very particular identity.
Archbishop Carroll’s persona and leadership anticipated that Catholicism would not be entirely antagonistic to many of the values being forged in the U.S. cultural matrix, yet would not hesitate to offer needed critique. He represented a group of Christians who had much to contribute to the U.S. society and Catholicism throughout the world.
Archbishops Flores and Carroll were very different and lived in very different times. The impact they had responded to the moment in which each lived. Nonetheless, both were at the brink of critical moments of U.S. Catholic history.
While most U.S. Catholics may be familiar with Archbishop Carroll, most of us need to learn more about Archbishop Flores and the shifts that he embodied. We would better understand the present moment.
As I returned to Boston after my presentation on Jan. 9, I read that Archbishop Flores died exactly that day. Coincidence or providence? He left us at a time when a new way of being a U.S. Catholic is dawning. In his persona and leadership, he embodied this new beginning.