Tuesday, February 19, 2008

South By Southwest

Within 40 days now, the new seat of the church in the American South will open its doors.

Final touches continue apace toward the 2 April dedication of Houston's Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, with the arrival of statues made in Italy marking the most recent milestone in the rise of the $40 million, 1,800-seat centerpiece of its 1.5 million-member archdiocese. As construction teams install up to 10 pieces of marble a day, on deck are the main altar (with four-ton mensa) and baptismal font.

The first metropolitan mother-church to be inaugurated since LA's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels opened in 2002 and the seat of the nation's first Southern cardinal, the dedication will be the most significant ecclesiastical event to take place in the region since Pope John Paul II visited San Antonio, New Orleans and Miami on his two-week, nine-city Stateside trek in 1987.

While the historic St Mary's Basilica in the founding see city of Galveston remains the "official" cathedral of Texas' mother diocese, the new construction 50 miles to the north will become the practical hub for the rapidly-expanding flock of the nation's fourth-largest city. In a symbolic "passing of the torch" from the current co-cathedral, beeswax-bearing parishioners processed across San Jacinto Street after dusk on Candlemas and surrounded the new building with light.

Judging by the mail, the folks in the state's senior archdiocese might still be getting the vapors about the whole shebang... but as Milli Vanilli would say, "Blame it on the red."

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Meanwhile, in the Big D, home of the K-Far -- Dallas, that is... where a mix of emigres from the south and north has seen the Catholic population quintuple (i.e. increase fivefold) since 1990 -- engaging Hispanic young people has emerged as a top priority:
"There's nothing out there for them," said Maria Gonzalez, a youth ministry program administrator at St. Monica Catholic Church in northwest Dallas, where approximately one-third of the more than 1,000-member congregation is Hispanic. "They would finish their sacraments and then they would leave" the church.

About 38 percent of the estimated 82 million Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic, with nearly half younger than 30, according to the Instituto Fe y Vida, a national Catholic organization that conducts research, produces ministry publications, and offers training for Hispanic youth and young adult ministry. Although the U.S. has a growing number of Hispanics, the number of Hispanic adults who identify themselves as Catholic is falling – 68 percent in 2006, down from 75 percent in 1990.

As part of a nationwide effort, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas is taking steps to not only keep Hispanic youths in the church but also prepare them to accept leadership roles when they are adults.

"Because of the growing Hispanic membership, we wanted to find a way to listen to their needs and empower them," said Susan Dorfmeister, the diocese's director of youth and young adult ministry. "Young people are the church of today, and we need their leadership."

The challenge, she said, is helping them find a voice in their parish and preparing them to take leadership roles in their parish.

"The ways in which we have been ministering are not as effective in reaching out to our Hispanic young people, and thus we have to look for ways to reach out broader," Ms. Dorfmeister said.

Across the diocese, Encounter and Respecto – young-adult and youth ministry programs designed for the Hispanic community – are being used not only to identify and train future church leaders but also to honor their culture and the role it plays in the church.

Parishes across the diocese are incorporating that foundation in different ways to meet their own needs.

At St. Monica, the youth ministry program was overhauled about three years ago to include multiculturalism as a way to entice youths back into the church. Thirty to 70 young people gather weekly for Teen Tuesdays to discuss issues concerning their faith. In addition, a Sunday evening youth-led service was established and community service projects expanded.

"It was a way to integrate the Hispanic culture into the youth program, because when you do that, it lets them know they are accepted for who they are," said Michelle Tomlinson, the church's high school youth director. "It gives them that connection, and that will ultimately lead to them taking leadership roles in the church."

Juan, who started attending St. Monica's Teen Tuesdays 2 ½ years ago, said that's what has kept him involved.

"I think a lot of Hispanics aren't getting involved because they're either afraid they're not going to fit in or they just don't know what's out there for them," he said. "But I've seen a lot of progress already."

Ms. Tomlinson said she, too, has seen a difference.

"We really didn't have many Hispanics in our youth program," she said. "Since changing the program, I've seen an increase of at least 50 percent."
As the saying goes, "Everything's bigger in Texas."