September 2005 – Hispanics

Hispanics bring many gifts to contribute!

Hispanics are already the largest minority group in the United States. They have become the largest constituency of baptized Catholics in the U.S. They also make up the largest proportion of the more than 40 million immigrants that have reached these shores –legally or illegally- since the mid-1960’s when the 1920-era immigration restrictions were lifted.

Taken as a whole, they represent great opportunity and great hope for U.S. society and the Catholic Church in America. (Already more than 20% of priests ordained in U.S. each year are foreign born – and a significant number of these are, of course, Hispanics.)

Hispanic immigrants can, I believe, renew American society for they represent an antidote to the individualism and moral relativism that has migrated from our elites into our popular culture. Immigrants, and Hispanics in particular, who seek economic opportunity in our nation still believe in the “American dream”. They believe that with hard work and opportunity one can become somebody in this country. This is reflected in all economic levels from the professional to the humble migrant worker. It is reflected particularly in those whose contributions and potential usefulness to American society many question, namely the poor immigrants who take jobs that Americans don’t want. The jobs that Americans would disparage as “dead-end” jobs are, for these immigrants, truly “entry-level” jobs.

Some express concerns that these new 21st century immigrants will not integrate into American society as successfully as earlier 19th century immigrants did. However, these fears seem to be unfounded. Hispanics do want to learn to speak English and they are generally successful in doing so. Their values, dedication to hard work, strong attachment to the nuclear and extended family, and traditional views of morality, have been the core values of America since before its founding.

One of the central teachings of Vatican II was that “man can only realize himself through the sincere gift of himself”. In a culture increasingly self-absorbed and self-centered, Hispanic immigrants witness to a profoundly Catholic “theology of the gift”. For in most cases, they have immigrated not just to seek “self-fulfillment” but to be able to help their loved ones. In many cases, they’re coming here represents considerable self-sacrifice –as they leave loved ones behind – not to abandon them but in order to help them. The millions of dollars sent home in remittances is testimony to this “theology of the gift”.

Hispanic immigrants offer America opportunity almost as much as America offers opportunity to them. Most studies focus on their “mano de obra”, their contribution to the work force. That is not to be disparaged – especially with low birth rates among more established American populations and the looming entry of the baby boomers into retirement. However, their greatest potential contribution– and America’s greatest opportunity – is the contribution of their traditional values to the renewal of our culture.

Indeed, Hispanics bring much to contribute to our nation’s life and to the life of our Catholic Church in America. Their values are formed by their Catholic religious culture.

More than 30 years ago, when I was in the seminary, we were told that 25% of American Catholics were of Hispanic origin. Today it is probably closer to 50%, counting those who are baptized Catholic or who identify themselves as Catholics. In the Diocese of Orlando, while we count “officially” almost 500,000 Catholics, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that there are more than 400,000 Hispanics living in the counties that make up the diocese. While the majority of these are U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican origin, they together with immigrant Hispanics represent a tremendous creative and talented constituency who deserve a place at the table of our civil society, as well as within our churches.