Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Latinos Leave the Catholic Church - por qué no?

The March 21 issue of Newsweek carries the article, “The Battle for Latino Souls”, which describes the current push of Protestant churches to get Hispanics to leave our traditional Catholic faith and join them. I didn’t realize the trend was in that direction, but data shows that from 1999 to 2004, the number of Hispanic Protestants rose and the number of Hispanic Catholics fell. Also data shows the longer a Hispanic family has been in the U.S, the more likely its members are to convert to Protestantism. First generation Latinos tend to be Catholic, but third generation Latinos often convert.

I’m a third generation Latina (grandparents born in Mexico, parents and self born in U.S.) and to this news I say, “EXCELLENT!” The American Catholic church is stodgey and restrictive and its mass services are just plain dull and boring. One woman is quoted in the article as saying that at her former Catholic church, “I always left feeling empty,” while at her new Pentacostal one, “I felt something beautiful -- the presence of the Lord.”

Yes, the American Catholic mass is a very empty place to be, the only exceptions being those masses that are led by priests with engaging ideas, inspirational messages and a charisma that invites personal contact and genuine connection. I’ve been to masses like that and they’re pretty good. Masses led by burnt out, uninspired priests without the energy or interest to engage with their congregants do little more than kill an hour of your morning, if they even do that much. One priest at my parents’ church used to spend no more than 20 minutes on a weekday morning mass. Actually, the mass I attended there lasted 17 minutes. What's the point of that?

I know what I’m saying is polemic, emotional and probably offensive. Maybe I should clarify that I’m only talking about my experience in the Catholic church. I attended mass every Sunday from birth (for god’s sake) until I was 19. That includes a year and a half of college, so I even went when my mother wasn’t making me. I tried again a couple of years ago to walk among the Catholics and it was fun for a while, but eventually the tedium got to me and I left St. Ignatius Church (on Glenwood Avenue in Chicago) last fall. I told the main pastor, Fr. Joe Jackson, that the reason I was leaving was his homilies, which held no inspirational messages or even interest for me. He was nice enough to talk to me about it for 30 minutes, but I still left. Fr. Jackson of St. Ignatius in Chicago is definitely one of those burnt-out priests in desperate need of a sabbatical, extended vacation or at LEAST a serious, intensive retreat for spiritual leaders who have lost their spirit. I suspect what would be best for Jackson is just a change of career, but I decided not to tell him that.

So anyway, because I keep winding up regularly in Catholic services, even during the times when I haven’t been part of a church, I have a lifetime of Catholic experience to draw on and it’s that experience that makes me so disgusted with the Catholic church. If they’re going to make guilt and obligation the bedrock of their religion, they should at least make the weekly services interesting. It’s as if Catholics can’t stand to have a good time. The traditional Catholic mass has calcified over the centuries into an empty set of movements and rote prayers that elevates ritual above feeling. I’m angered by the idea that the Catholic church requires ritual for the sake of (empty) ritual, but I’m disturbed by the idea that there are people who actually think they get a sense of renewal from this travesty of a spiritual practice. To those who actually like mumbling rote prayers, trying to stay alert through a homily that rarely engages them, and moving through a spiritless mass in a trance of boredom, I say, you have GOT jumpstart your life because this is not the holy spirit. Wake UP and demand a more spiritually fulfilling religion that actually helps you live a calmer, fuller, happier life. What does “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, blah blah blah” have to do with anything when you need help earning a living, or keeping your marriage together, or not wanting to commit suicide when it all just seems too hard? If “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, blah blah blah” doesn’t have any impact on Monday morning, then I can’t use it.

Yeah, I’m getting worked up. Yeah, I’ve pretty much reached the intellectual state of an old man furiously swinging his cane around the front yard. But this is all to say that if American Latinos are abandoning the Catholic church in favor of the livelier, more musically rhythmic, more literally “hands-on” spiritual experience of Pentacostal churches, then “God bless ’em." We should all have a place that spiritually moves us with palpable engagement and release. We should all be so moved by an experience of spirit that we can feel its reverberation throughout the week, throughout our lives, throughout whatever pot-hole crap the godless random world spits at us. I argue that the Catholic church just doesn’t have The Stuff. For all I know, maybe the Pentacostals do.

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