The Latino priest shortage and three ways to respond

In the Pews

The editors of U.S. Catholic interview Timothy Matovina, professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

[Read more from Timothy Matovina on Latino Catholics in the United States.] 

One of the challenges with regard to Hispanic leadership in the church is the great shortage of Latino priests.

The shortage of Latino clergy is a tremendous handicap, and it is further exacerbated by the fact that about 80 percent of the Latino clergy in the United States are foreign born, which increases the challenge of passing on the faith to English speaking Latinos.

Some of the immigrant pastors keep telling them to hold on to the Spanish language and the customs from the old country. “Don’t become Americanized.” Well, this young person is becoming Americanized. It’s inevitable. People who say that Latinos don’t assimilate haven’t looked out the window. Many young kids can’t even speak good Spanish, which of course frustrates their parents. They don’t know the customs, but haranguing them about it is not going to make them very inclined to listen to you.

What are the reasons behind the Latino priest shortage?

There are a number of things that contribute to the lack of priestly vocations. Part of it is education, and in particular the hurdles for Hispanics to get a master of divinity degree. Hispanics have fewer folks with college degrees, which would allow them to go on with their theological studies.


Then for some who feel called to the priesthood, legal status is sometimes a problem. Some bishops have been able to work well with undocumented men, while others have not. You have to figure out not only how to train them but also how to get their status regularized.

And then, as with other cultures, celibacy is sometimes a barrier, which for Hispanics is reinforced by a strong cultural sense that the son is going to carry on the family name by having a wife and children.

One really important reason for many Latinos is their lack of contact with priests. When you ask priests how they got their vocation, most priests will tell you, “Well I went to a Jesuit high school, or I was impressed by my Claretian pastor, and I realized, hey, what these guys are doing, I can see myself doing that.” They became priests because a priest befriended them.

Studies have shown that Latinos just have less contact with priests whom they would know as a friend, someone they could talk to as a spiritual guide, work on youth retreats with, or make a connection with—something that would lead them to imagine themselves to be called to that vocation.

Thankfully the number of Latinos in seminaries is actually growing now, and that’s a healthy sign. But the population is growing even more. We’re not going to catch up in terms of Latino priests as to the percent of the population.

Unfortunately, I think some people have their heads in the sand. They think if we just “prayed a little harder,” the vocations would come. That’s just not happening. The population is growing exponentially, and although the numbers of priests are growing, they are not growing fast enough.

So if we’re not really catching up and the Latino priest shortage is worsening, are there things we can do to respond to that?

I would name three things that I see as having the greatest potential payoff right now. The formation of non-Latino seminarians and priests, the formation of immigrant priests from Latin America, and the formation of both lay ministers and deacons.

First, we’ve got to keep working with non Latino clergy. Two thirds of the Latino faith community today is pastored by non Latinos. Now there have been many efforts—for example, by the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, the Southeast Pastoral Institute in Miami, and the now-defunct Northeast Catholic Pastoral Center for Hispanics in New York City—to get these priests into formation where they get not only knowledgeable but excited about working with Latinos.

So those efforts have to continue, and we may need to think about making them required rather than optional. I would challenge bishops and seminary rectors to do that both in their seminaries and in the continuing education for priests.

There are many heroic, non Latino priests in Hispanic ministry. If you talk to Latinos, if it’s the choice between a Latin American priest who’s kind of stodgy and clerical and a “gringo” priest who may make some mistakes in his Spanish homilies but deeply loves the people, they will go for the non-Latino priest.

Unfortunately, in terms of seminary formation, providing good courses on Hispanic ministry has recently become more difficult. The new Program for Priestly Formation has expanded certain core requirements—in part because of a perceived greater need for catechesis on the basics of the faith. Now seminarians are required to take more courses in the basics of the faith, in philosophy, systematic theology, and so on.

That’s all well and good, but it has had the result that, more and more, the courses on Hispanic ministry have become completely elective. So it increases the challenge of how to form seminarians and those who are already priests in Hispanic ministries so that they’re really prepared to do this well.

If a bishop or a seminary asked you to develop the kind of formation program in Hispanic ministry that you would like to see mandatory for priests and seminarians, what three things would you include in your outline?

Well, actually, I have eight things. They are the eight chapters in my book, Latino Catholicism. But let me just mention a few of those things here.
No. 1 is leadership formation, calling forth indigenous leadership among Latinos, and how a pastor should be going about doing that. (For more information on this topic see Caught between two worlds.)


The second piece would focus on the worship, devotion, religious traditions, and sacramental imagination of Latinos. Among English speaking Catholics in this country the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council was very much focused on the “noble simplicity of the Roman Rite,” as the liturgy constitution says, and therefore on paring down devotional practices and getting more focused on sacraments. Latinos, on the other hand, didn’t go against Vatican II, but they went to the part of the liturgy document that said that the popular devotions of the people should enhance and lead to deeper sacramental worship. They shouldn’t be eliminated and put to the side.

So I would work with priests and seminarians on developing an appreciation for the deep, communitarian, and sacramental imagination that Latinos have. And that includes understanding culture as something more than just “We have tacos, you have hamburgers,” but as something that deeply affects one’s worldview, psyche, and perceptions of people and that includes one’s prayer life and spiritual life. I often tell the seminarians I teach at Notre Dame that learning another culture is like learning another way to pray.

Then, third, understanding the issues affecting Hispanic youth and young adults is absolutely essential. In particular: What is the effect of generational transition in the life experience of young, second or third generation Latinos who are pulled between two worlds, their parents and their peers? How does that affect their willingness to deeply embrace the faith?

Fourth, I would want to talk about the need to engage justice issues, not just moral issues like the right to life, but community organizing, immigration, the things that are very important to Latinos and that they see as a natural part of living out their faith. They want to see the church involved in defending immigrants.

Fifth, I would make sure to throw in a bit of history, too, which is very important. Part of that would be the history of the whole movement of the various Encuentros in the Catholic Church and other efforts that have been going on for the last 30 or 40 years through which Latinos themselves have gotten more involved in the Catholic Church in this country.

Sixth, I would do a unit on what Paulist Father Brett Hoover has called “shared parishes.” That would look at ways pastors in multicultural parishes can work effectively across cultures. Thirty percent of the parishes in this country now have Mass in two languages, so how does one form community, first of all, in parish communities that today often are so doggone large. But then, when a parish has two or more language groups, what’s the model for forming a more unified parish without forcing one group to adopt the culture of the other group to become a part of the parish? So how do we really build bridges in shared parishes? I think that’s a key thing.

Finally, I would also want to teach them about the Catholic charismatic renewal and the apostolic movements that are so important to Latinos. All right, that’s way more than three, but those are some of the things that I might want to hit.

The second focus you mentioned with regard to responding to the Latino priest shortage was the formation of immigrant priests from Latin America. What are the issues there?

One of the most striking things I’ve found is that fewer than half of the foreign-born priests who come to minister in the United States go to the orientation programs that are offered in dioceses or other places.

Some of them say, “I’ve already been to the seminary. I was a successful pastor for eight years in Columbia. I don’t need to be told how to serve a community.” So there is some resistance sometimes.

But almost unanimously, those who go come back very enthusiastic: “This was great. I didn’t realize that the U.S. Hispanic reality is so different from the one from which I came. I didn’t realize how the chanceries and dioceses work here, how the priests interact, the culture of the priesthood, and all the practical things I learned.”

It’s critical that bishops and vicar generals tell them, “We welcome you to our diocese, but we want you to participate in this orientation because we value you and we think this will be the best preparation for your ministry here.” And then I think dioceses need to have some ongoing formation for the work they’re doing.

The flip side of this—and this is almost never done in U.S. Catholic parishes—is preparing the parish to receive the incoming priest, including the non Latino portion of the parish.

A frequent complaint on the part of Latino immigrant priests is that they often feel like they’re being treated as second-class priests. They’re often assisting in three or four churches and driving all over the place to say Spanish Masses. But every parish they go into, a non Latino is the pastor and sometimes they feel that those pastors are really perceiving them as “visiting” in the sense of “We’ll see how you do, and we’ll decide whether you’re staying or not.”

They don’t necessarily feel a fraternity among the priests of the diocese they come into. And they may get the cold shoulder from the parishioners who are not Latino, who sometimes have the attitude, “Why is this priest only speaking Spanish? He’s perpetuating division in the parish by only speaking Spanish.” Now, of course, they fail to notice that the priest who only speaks English is not really doing too much with the Spanish-speaking segment of the parish. Or if they do say Mass in English, the complaints about them are, excuse me, but usually from the elderly person in the back who says, “I can’t understand what he’s saying,” because the priest is not a native English speaker who’s being asked to serve English-speaking Catholics.

In that regard the Latin American priests’ experience is similar to the relatively new phenomenon of the “international priest,” to use the late American church sociologist Dean Hoge’s word. Many of the foreign-born priests we have coming today are from the Philippines, India, or Africa, and they come here not to serve the people of their own native groups, but to serve in places where there’s a shortage of priests and because we need more English-speaking priests.

But the immigrant Latino priest is in a different situation from many of these priests recruited to work specifically in English: Like the German, Polish, and Italian immigrant priests of past generations, the immigrant Latino priest is usually asked to work primarily with the numerous Catholics of his own native language, who desperately need his leadership and service. Those European immigrant priests served as their fellow immigrants’ spokespeople who could advocate for them in the dioceses and chanceries and get things done, and there is certainly still a need for that role for today’s Latino priests as well.

One important thing is careful selection to make sure that we’re getting priests who are really coming here to serve, and then formation as to the differences between the U.S. Latino and the Latin American realities, because they are very different. For most of our Latin American priests, that’s the big adjustment that they’re challenged to make. Some make it way better than others, some don’t make it very well at all. Within that latter group, there are some additional difficulties for immigrant priests who may be coming with a clerical mindset that is very much: “Padrecito talks and the people listen.” That usually doesn’t go over very well.

And finally, what about the formation of lay ministers and deacons?

We’ve already talked about lay ministry. I don’t think we should ever give up on the vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but we also need to focus on developing many other kinds of vocations. So we need to prioritize the formation of Hispanic lay ministers and then give them jobs in ministry.

And then the training and formation of more Hispanic deacons deserves greater attention. In the next 10 to 15 years we’ll probably reach a point where we’ll have more Hispanic permanent deacons than Hispanic priests in this country. I think we should be doing even more with those Hispanic deacons, because some are very well trained, and some are not.

There are Hispanic deacons in this country who aren’t even allowed to preach because the pastor doesn’t think they’ve been trained well enough. Sometimes the pastor is just not being very open, but sometimes, if you ask the Hispanic faithful, they’ll tell you the pastor’s right. This guy is not as well prepared as he should be.

So the diaconate is another road to sacramental and preaching ministries that I think we should continue to work on, and some bishops more than others are doing that. One of the questions with respect to the permanent diaconate preparation program is whether to run it in Spanish, and if you do run it in Spanish, who’s going to teach it? Where do you get the theological resources to do it well?

So the challenge is: How do we work with all of those groups to help alleviate the Latino priest shortage and to get a more unified and vigorous ministry across the board.

This is a web-only article that accompanies Caught between two worlds: an interview with theologian Timothy Matovina which appeared in the March 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 3, pages 18-22).

Image: Photo of Claretian Father José Sánchez at an outdoor Mass, ©The Claretians