Monday, May 07, 2007

The Church's Latin Hope

Pope Benedict leaves for his five-day jaunt to Brazil on Wednesday to open the decennial plenary of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which'll be meeting for a month in the world's largest Catholic country. The pontiff will also canonize the Franciscan Bl Frei Galvao, who'll become Brazil's first native-born saint, and he'll talk social policy with President Lula.

At his noonday Regina Caeli yesterday, Benedict noted that "almost half the world's Catholics live" in Latin America, "many of them young people.

"This is why it's called the 'continent of hope,'" the Pope said, "a hope that concerns not only the church but all America and the whole world."

Alongside the native prelates and a score of top Vatican officials who'll be part of the assembly by papal appointment, four US bishops will attend the plenary of the Latin American episcopal conference, the CELAM: USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Bishops Ricardo Ramirez CSB of Las Cruces, Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock and the rising star Jaime Soto, the auxiliary of Orange (at least, as of press time).

As the continuing infusion of Hispanics into the States strengthens the church in the south and west, the new arrivals' distinctive piety putting an ever-more dominant stamp on American Catholicism in the process, the papal visit and meeting serves as further reminder to this flock to the north that -- for all the current fixation of the church's more rarefied elements on the Tridentine Mass -- the Latin future of the US church is more one of Guadalupe than Ghislieri, not so much "Et cum spiritum tuo" as "Y con tu espĂ­ritu."

A recent Pew report highlighted the impact and, with a heavy Charismatic spin, today's Washington Post gives it the A1 treatment:
For a glimpse into the future of the Roman Catholic Church in America, peek inside St. Benedict's in Queens on a Sunday after the Matsons, Mays and Cassidys have all gone home and Joan Overton has shut down the pipe organ following the sparsely attended 8:30 a.m. Mass. That's when the pews fill up with the Durans, Lopezes and Fernandezes and the spiritual thermometer turns up a notch.

"Everyone on their feet!" cried Gladys Cardenas, a stout and fiery Puerto Rican, as a band struck up behind her. "Come on," she shouted in Spanish. "Get ready to celebrate God!"

On cue, Monsignor John O'Brien emerged in brilliant white robes for the 10 a.m. charismatic Mass -- the most popular in a parish where attendance has declined for every other Sunday service. As the band played a hymn tinged with a merengue beat, Aurora Duran, an 82-year-old Dominican, fell to her knees in throaty "hallelujahs." A man in the front row lifted his hands toward the heavens and began to speak in tongues. Shouts of "Glory!" and "Christ lives!" echoed through the church.

Such scenes were once rarely witnessed in any language inside U.S. Catholic churches, long known for relatively solemn celebrations that eschew the more vivacious religious devotion of evangelical Protestantism. But as waves of Latin American immigrants alter the fabric of life in much of the United States, they are leaving one of their biggest imprints on the Roman Catholic Church.
Their arrival is reinvigorating the U.S. Catholic Church's charismatic movement, which had been in decline since peaking in the 1980s. In recent decades, the movement -- a type of worship that includes faith healing and prophesying -- has swept across Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where Catholic leaders are using rock-star priests and beachfront Masses to stem the defections of their flock to born-again Christian faiths.

American Catholic leaders say the church here has not made a conscious effort to promote charismatic practices. Rather, it has embraced them as a pragmatic response to the growing number of Hispanic Catholics. With one in five Hispanics having left the church over the past 25 years -- many of them to Pentecostal churches -- the newly energized movement could be a saving grace.

"We're responding to a genuine movement of the spirit," said Bishop Robert J. Carlson, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "Especially over the past five years, the charismatic movement is where our growth has been."...
...ubi growth et vigor, Carlson ibi est....
Rather than representing a shift in the articles of faith, analysts say, charismatic Catholicism is transforming the nature of devotion and putting new emphasis on "personal experiences" with God. The Catholic Church has traditionally used its clergy as the conduits of divine interpretation, but increasingly, charismatic Catholics are being energized by lay ministers in small prayer groups and are employing methods such as speaking in tongues as independent and direct spiritual channels.

More effervescent styles of devotion, analysts say, are also a reflection of the popular custom of religious feast days as well as the ancient influences of indigenous and African spirituality in Latin American cultures.

"Immigration is changing the nature of the American Catholic, making worship more lively, more intense," said Monsignor Joseph Malagreca, moderator of the National Hispanic Committee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "We are accommodating the desire for a deeper and more personal relationship with God."

The sprawling diocese that includes Brooklyn and Queens -- in which the percentage of Hispanic parishioners is already over 55 percent -- offers a window into the future of the church as immigrant populations rapidly grow in other urban and suburban areas of the United States. At St. Benedict Joseph Labre, in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, for instance, sharp differences now divide the 10 a.m. charismatic Mass and the more traditional -- and less attended -- Spanish Mass said at 1 p.m.

A significant number of active charismatic and younger Catholics celebrate at the morning Mass, spontaneously shouting out praise, lifting their hands skyward and clapping to the rhythm of moving hymns played on electric guitars and synthesizers. By comparison, the more traditional Spanish Mass held later is, like St. Benedict's English-language Masses, more tranquil, with hymns sung to serene pipe organ music and no demonstrative devotion.

As Hispanic immigrants have become the majority of parishioners at St. Benedict's, more emphasis is also being placed on the mystical rites of the church. St. Benedict's has in recent years resurrected once-dormant practices such as Monday adorations of the Eucharist, encased in a large gilded vessel called a monstrance, as well as "healing Masses," in which priests lay hands on the faithful for cures and inspiration. Across the diocese, leaders have noted increases in demand for healing prayers, house blessings and even exorcisms.
Thank God for a church of 32 flavors... and then some.

AP/Ricardo Moraes
PHOTO 2: Jessica Wynne/Washington Post