One sign of hope for the Catholic Church’s future has been the phenomenal growth and great vibrancy of faith among young Latino Catholics. Today more than half of U.S. millennial Catholics (ages 14 to 34) are Hispanic as are two-thirds of Catholics under 35 who attend Church regularly. All over the country young Latinos are stepping up to help their peers connect to the Church.
Catholic Extension has been helping mission dioceses to foster the faith of young Hispanics through religious education, youth and young adult ministry and leadership development. For example, four years ago, a targeted Extension initiative designed to help mission dioceses to identify, educate and hire young Hispanic lay leaders for their ministries, made it possible for the Diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana, to hire Marcos González Villalba as its first diocesan Hispanic youth and young adult coordinator.
Villalba has been helping parishes to reach out to young Latinos and provide youth and young adult groups for them. Now for the first time, Hispanic youth are being included in diocesan-wide youth events, retreats, workshops and leadership camps.
As a result of Villalba’s efforts, parishes and groups ministering with Hispanics are beginning to flourish and multiply. “The seeds that have been planted are starting to sprout,” Villalba said, “and more people in our Hispanic community are excited about their Catholic faith and feel they can share their love for God in their own language and culture.”
According to Edgar Pardo, a leader in the young adult group Oasis at Christ the King Parish in Bossier City, Louisiana, Villalba is the “heartbeat of the young adult groups” in the diocese and “has made a huge difference” in helping the Catholic Church make connections with young Hispanics. “I wanted to have a group such as this,” Pardo said, “and Marcos has made it possible to fulfill my dream.”
Pardo said it is critical for young Latino Catholics like his group to set an example for their peers because it is easy for young Hispanics to “fall by the wayside.” Having been away from the Church for some time himself, he gives thanks to God and feels called to “show the young Hispanic community that God exists, and that He has done so much for me.”
Villalba said he sees his own role as being one of the “gente puente,” a bridge builder. “The Church has built a bridge to them, so they can come across.”
The youth and young adult groups have led to much greater participation in Mass, with young Latinos now taking on roles such as eucharistic ministers, altar servers or singing in the choir. “Now they realize they have the potential to give back. And that also reaches outside the walls of the church, as they start helping neighbors by cutting their grass or creating activities for disabled children at a hospital for children. They hear the call to service, and they now extend the arms of Christ to others, bring that joy of the Gospel to them and give them hope and love.”
One concrete result of the work with young Latinos has been that the Shreveport diocese now has its first Hispanic seminarians studying to become priests. Three years ago Villalba’s diocesan leadership team talked with some of the young Hispanic men and women about considering to become a priest or religious brother or sister. “Thankfully,” Villalba said, “one of them said yes and began to seriously think about the priesthood.” He eventually entered the seminary, and now represents the “Latino face of a seminarian in our diocese.”
Two others followed him. Now the diocese has three Latino seminarians. They come to youth retreats, where they share their vocation journeys and inspire other youth to think about that path for themselves.
Villalba believes that getting involved in youth and young adult groups has helped many young Latino Catholics in his diocese to ask questions about their purpose in life. “Through Church,” he said, “they learn to be leaders among their peers, in their teams, homes and schools. We help them develop their potential so that they know that they are special in God’s eyes. Here the Church is their family and they know that they are loved.”