For the first time in the history of Catholicism in the United States, three Hispanic bishops lead archdioceses concurrently: Archbishop Nelson Pérez in Philadelphia, Archbishop José Gómez, and Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller in San Antonio.
The process of seeing Hispanic bishops rise to serving in such capacity has been slow compared to the fast growth of the Hispanic population. Only 60 years ago, less than 10 percent of the U.S. Catholic population was Hispanic. Today nearly half of Catholics in the country self-identify as such.
In contrast, the first Hispanic archbishop was Patricio Flores in San Antonio in 1979. He had served as an auxiliary bishop there for a few years. In 2011, Archbishop José Gómez became the head of Los Angeles. He came as a coadjutor the year before. Now Philadelphia welcomes one of its own, Archbishop Nelson Pérez.
This is not a competition, of course. Ministry in all its manifestations is not about power or politics. Yet, there is something powerful and something political about witnessing leaders from a group that is profoundly reshaping the entire U.S. Catholic experience rise to these posts. How many Hispanic bishops and archbishops there are and where they serve are important matters.
It is not a secret to anyone that the face of Catholicism in the 21st century is becoming increasingly Hispanic. If this sounds novel to anyone, all one needs to do is venture into any large city and its Catholic churches throughout the country. The fact that nearly 60 percent of Catholics under 18 self-identify as Catholic gives us a good sense of the direction U.S. Catholicism is heading, religiously and culturally.
Every Catholic group in the short history of the United States of America as a nation, immigrant or mostly U.S. born, has found its way into establishing vibrant faith communities and eventually cultivating leaders for church and society.
Irish, Italian and German Catholics, among many others, delighted in seeing pastoral leaders from their communities become bishops, directors of schools, heads of convents and organizations. So did Catholics with a long history of marginalization in our society as in the case of African Americans and more recently Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.
Pastoral leaders often embody the hopes of the particular communities from which they come. They are symbols of what is possible, role models and carriers of the voice and experience of such communities that nurtured them. Pastoral leaders are bridges that bring the wisdom of their particular communities to bear upon the life of the larger whole.
Archbishop Nelson Pérez is the first Hispanic bishop to serve as the pastor of the entire Catholic community in Philadelphia. He comes from Cleveland where in 2017 he became the first Hispanic bishop ever to lead a diocese in the Midwest. He already has a place in the history of U.S. Catholicism as pioneer and trailblazer in terms of this type of leadership posts.
Hispanics presently constitute nearly 20 percent of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and everything indicates that this population will continue to grow in coming decades. Something similar should be said of most dioceses and archdioceses in the Northeast. Although most Hispanic Catholics live in the South and the West, it is clear that their presence is not confined to these regions of the country any longer.
The service of Hispanics as bishops and archbishops as well as the service of Hispanics in positions of pastoral leadership in other parts of the country has made the presence of Hispanic Catholics more visible in those places. The appointment of Archbishop Pérez to Philadelphia has expanded that visibility to a region of the country that traditionally has been as a strong bastion of Euro-American Catholicism.
As the head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Archbishop Pérez lifts up the presence and service of other Hispanic bishops, pastors, vowed religious, deacons and lay leaders in this corner of the country who have been serving for decades Catholics of all backgrounds, not just Hispanic Catholics.
This is exactly what I have in mind when I suggest that his appointment is powerful and political. It is powerful insofar as the Catholic community in the United States welcomes the leadership of a Hispanic bishop at the service of all, yet mindful that he is a bishop whose life and faith were nurtured in the wombs of a family and a community deeply grounded in Hispanic cultural and religious traditions.
It is political because his appointment lifts up voices, affirms the contributions of a community that many Catholics in our country still fail to understand and appreciate, and corroborates that we live in a historical moment in which one cannot speak of U.S. Catholicism without acknowledging the Hispanic Catholic experience in its multiple expressions.
Hosffman Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.
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