Pope Francis to See a U.S. Church in Transition ; Latino Immigrants Swell Pews in West and South, as Parishes Shut in East

By Goodstein, Laurie | International New York Times, September 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Pope Francis to See a U.S. Church in Transition ; Latino Immigrants Swell Pews in West and South, as Parishes Shut in East


Goodstein, Laurie, International New York Times


Some U.S. churches, especially in the West, are bursting with immigrant parishioners, while others struggle to stay open. Philadelphia is a prime example.

More than 5,000 parishioners packed the pews, the choir loft and the vestibule on a recent weekend at Sacred Heart Church here in the Central Valley of California for five Masses -- four of them in Spanish. Young Hispanic families spilled outside onto the steps, straining to hear the homily over the roar of an elevated freeway across the street.

Across the country in Philadelphia, there is only one weekend Mass now at Our Lady Help of Christians, a church built by and for German immigrants in 1898. The clock in its tower has stopped. The parochial school next door is closed. Only 53 worshipers, most of them with white hair, gathered for Mass on a recent Sunday in the soaring Gothic sanctuary.

The Roman Catholic Church that Pope Francis will encounter on his first visit to the United States is being buffeted by immense change, and it is struggling -- with integrating a new generation of immigrants, with conflicts over buildings and resources, with recruiting priests and with retaining congregants. The denomination is still the largest in the United States, but its power base is shifting.

On the East Coast and in the Midwest, bishops are closing or merging parishes and shuttering parochial schools built on the dimes and sweat of generations of European immigrants. In many parishes, worshipers are sparse, funerals outnumber baptisms, and Sunday collections are not enough to maintain even beloved houses of worship.

In the West and the South, and in some other unexpected pockets all over the country, the church is bursting at the seams with immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Latin America, but also from Asia and Africa. Hispanic parents put their children on waiting lists for religious education classes and crowd into makeshift worship spaces but avoid predominantly Anglo parishes because they do not always feel welcome there.

"The ethnic face of the church is changing, and the center of gravity and influence in the church is shifting from the East to the West, and from the North to the South," Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles said.

He added: "Pope Francis knows all of this. He knows the face of the church is changing, he knows the country's Hispanic Catholic heritage, and he knows how important Hispanics are for the future of the church."

Yet the church's leadership in America has not kept pace. While more than one-third of the 68 million registered Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, just 28 out of 270 active bishops in the United States are, and only about 7.5 percent of priests identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to a report released last year.

The difficulties go beyond demographics.

The Catholic Church has lost members of all ages who say they have been alienated by the sexual abuse scandals, the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood, the rejection of gay relationships and birth control, and the denial of Communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

Where two decades ago, about one of every four Americans identified as Catholic, today it is about one of every five, part of a broader trend toward secularization. If ex-Catholics formed a church of their own, it would be the nation's second largest, outranked by only the Catholic Church itself.

The challenge confronting Pope Francis this week as he visits Washington, New York and Philadelphia -- where he will give most of his addresses in Spanish -- is how to reach these many faces of American Catholicism: the fervent and the fallen-away; the liberals and the traditionalists; the anxious, shrinking white working-class churches in some areas, and underserved largely immigrant churches in others.

Francis is in many ways the right man for the moment. He is the first pope from Latin America. …

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