V Encuentro Seeks Feedback From Catholic Latinos

Published: Monday, January 16, 2017 - 7:51am
Updated: Monday, January 16, 2017 - 2:29pm
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(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Both masses in Spanish on a recent Sunday at Sacred Heart were standing room only.
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of the office of ethnic ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Father Paul Sullivan, pastor of Sacred Heart.
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Martha Marquez lives in North Scottsdale, but prefers to make the roughly 20 mile trip to Sacred Heart in South Phoenix.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church is simple but cozy. Most members prefer to worship in Spanish. So it’s no surprise that the image La Virgen de Guadalupe by the altar is the same size as the one of Jesus Christ.

The south Phoenix parish has always been predominantly Latino, a noun that lumps together people from more than 30 countries.

But religion is more complex. What works in one Latin American country may not work in another, said Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of the office of ethnic ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

“Not everybody eats tamales during Christmas,” Rodriguez said. “And not everybody has a strong veneration for our Lady of Guadalupe, as Mexicans do.”

Almost 60 percent of Phoenix’s Catholic population is Latino. Their roots might be anywhere from Mexico to Brazil, where people speak Portuguese, which is offered at a Valley parish.

The Church wants better ways to serve Latinos. The V Encuentro, or fifth meeting, asks Latinos to help build a map for the next 10 to 20 years.

“As the generations pass, the practice of the faith is not as strong as newly arrived or first generation being born here in the United States,” Rodriguez said.

The number of Catholics in the United States fell between 1 million and 3 million from 2007 to 2015. Nearly a quarter of U.S. Latinos used to be Catholic.

The church launched the Encuentros in the 1970s. With this V Encuentro, sort of a customer satisfaction survey, it hopes to learn how to keep Latinos coming back.

“We think it’s time to call forth once again and sort of take a state of the state, if you will, to see where we are and what we can do to strengthen what have,” Rodriguez said.

Sacred Heart has always been mostly Latino. Parishioners can go to mass in Spanish or English. There was a standing room only crowd for mass in Spanish on a recent Sunday.

“The language that people speak in, study in, hang out with their friends in, might be different than the language they pray in,” said Father Paul Sullivan, pastor of Sacred Heart.

The Catholic Church knows it has lost parishioners. But it doesn’t know if that’s because there are too many Spanish services, or not enough. One solution Sullivan doesn’t favor: bilingual mass.

“When you mix the two, we only get half a mass,” Sullivan said.

Sacred Heart has been through tough times. There church rotated priests for years before Sullivan arrived. The expansion of the airport pushed the church several blocks west and many people had to move to other parts of the Valley. 

But they still come back.    

“That’s the mystery of faith,” Sullivan said. “It's like, deep in their hearts. And they say, ‘This is where I know the lord. This is where I have my people. This is where I’m comfortable. It’s worth the drive.’”

There are a couple Catholic churches near where Martha Marquez lives in north Scottsdale. Yet she prefers to make the nearly 20 mile trip to Sacred Heart, where she volunteers in a number of roles.

“I don’t desire anything else,” Marquez said. “Just to be there.”

The great-grandmother is unsure how she’ll participate in the Encuentro, but she’s hopeful about the chance to give feedback.

“Maybe God will give me the wisdom to do something,” Marquez said.

Marquez prefers mass in Spanish. But weekly services are just one part of being Catholic, and she hopes the Encuentro will spur the Diocese to offer more programs in her native language.

“We’re losing a lot of parishioners,” Marquez said. “They’re going to other faiths.”

But she also knows the Encuentro is about the church’s future. Her teenage grandson doesn’t speak much Spanish, and when Marquez takes him to Sacred Heart, there aren’t a lot of people he can talk with.

“What can we do to help, to encourage all these kids? It’s not only my grandkid,” Marquez said. “It’s a lot of kids. They’re not participating.”

Phoenix parishes will host the Encuentro this spring, and church leaders will gather in Texas next year to analyze the results.

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