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“Filling the Churches”

While some bishops talk a lot about their concern for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, that talk tends to ring hollow because it is not followed up by effective and serious pastoral care.

Hispanic families spend time in prayer in front of a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe following Mass at St. Joseph Church in Wautoma, Wis., Aug. 26. During the Mass for migrant families celebrated by Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken, 29 children received their first Communion and 15 youth and adults received the sacrament of confirmation. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero

On September 10, Steve Bannon – the controversial and short-lived White House Chief Strategist – commented on “60 Minutes” that the motivation behind the push by American bishops on behalf of illegal immigrants is their desire to “fill the churches” since parishes are dying and money is needed. The comment is snide and also highly inaccurate for a number of reasons. A few days later, another commentator asserted that Catholic Charities offices were “pro-immigrant” because of the government money which flows into their coffers. I would like this editorial to put the whole question of the Church’s response (and responsibility) to immigrants into a proper context.

To be sure, one could get the impression that the U.S. bishops are of one mind on the immigration question, but I suspect that this is a mis-impression. Indeed, many bishops – individually – have a rather nuanced approach to the issue but are forced into a kind of lock-step policy by the bureaucracy of the episcopal conference. In point of fact, even Pope Francis vacillates greatly from calling for an almost “open borders” policy to a much more reasonable one of welcoming immigrants according to a nation’s capacity to “integrate” (the Pope’s word) them into the overall culture; the Pope’s guidance is less than helpful because, depending on his audience, he has changed his position many times.

But let’s return to Bannon’s remark, which displays incredible ignorance of the reality of American Catholic life.

Firstly, vast numbers of Hispanics arriving in our country are former Catholics, either by way of having been lured into various Fundamentalist sects in their country of origin or by having become “unchurched” for a variety of reasons. Further, as any priest involved in Hispanic ministry knows, if a parish had to rely on Hispanic contributions for survival, it wouldn’t survive for very long. It is not unusual that a congregation of 500 would yield less than $200 in the collection. This is so because the vast majority of these immigrants are poor and likewise because they were never trained to give to the church in their home countries.

As far as Catholic Charities offices go, I think it fair to say that they would not have any outreach work of this kind to do, were the immigrants not in need. In other words, the commentator got the equation backwards. It is not that these agencies seek government money and then hunt up clients; it is that the clients are already there, and funding is required. That said, I am not very sanguine about how “Catholic” some of these offices are as I have seen disturbing evidence that some of their workers actually refuse to direct clients to nearby Catholic churches for the sacraments, even when the immigrants request such information, doubtless for fear of losing government dollars.

This whole discussion, however, needs to be placed in a much broader context, namely, the situation of the Church in Latin America and the historical and present pastoral response to Catholic immigrant groups. In addition to data readily available to any inquirer, I also have a considerable amount of direct experience from having worked with evangelizing and apologetics groups in Mexico, Panama, Santo Domingo and Guatemala (the first country of Latin America to pass the 50% mark in Catholic defections to Fundamentalist sects; amazingly, that happened when Rios Mont was president and had become an Evangelical, while his own brother was a Catholic bishop!).

I don’t intend to be mean or unduly critical when I say that the overall evangelization of Latin America was never great. Yes, the majority of people were “sacramentalized” but hardly or very poorly catechized. The continent never produced a sufficient number of native vocations, which is why one of St. John XXIII’s first requests as Pope was for the United States (and other “First World” nations) to send priests, religious and laity as missionaries to South America. Nor can anyone defend the “winking” at syncretism which has co-existed with Catholicism there for centuries. Add to the confusion the tremendous damage done to an already weak body of believers by the onslaught of liberation theology, which really expedited the exodus of Catholics to sects. A case in point, when Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Mass attendance hit an all-time low of 20%. Barring some extraordinary pastoral outreach (about which more in a minute), we can’t expect such immigrants to be “filling the churches” in the United States.

Honesty compels us to admit that the Church in America has always been a Church of immigrants. The greatest influx, of course, occurred in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Most of those folks were poor, uneducated and, from a Catholic perspective, no “prize packages.” The Italians and Irish actually developed a reputation for being prone to crime. The Church’s response to the deck she had been handed was not hand-wringing or passive acceptance of a bad situation. Bishops and priests zeroed in on the children of the immigrants and, through the still-incipient Catholic school system, created a generation of observant Catholics who were simultaneously integrated into mainstream society – with the bonus that not a few of their parents followed their children’s lead into a more vibrant practice of the Faith.

When we consider the present condition of Hispanic Catholicism in our nation, we must conclude that one of the greatest failures of the American hierarchy has been the pastoral care of Hispanics. For the first time in American Catholic history, newly arrived immigrants have not had the Catholic education of their children taken seriously. The results have been disastrous: Nearly half of Hispanic Catholics have left the Church for other religious communities, while vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life from the Hispanic population are embarrassingly low. In the 1980s, Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal nuncio to the United States (previously nuncio in Argentina and eventually prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome) castigated our bishops for their pastoral negligence in this regard. As he stated in the New York Times in May 1989, “The annual loss of Spanish-speaking Catholics to non-Catholic sects is significantly—I would say disturbingly—high.”

Six years ago, this regrettable lacuna in pastoral outreach was highlighted in a study produced by Notre Dame University. In 2009, the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame set a goal of adding one million Hispanic children to the rolls of Catholic schools by 2020. As a result, the portion of the Catholic school population that is Hispanic rose from 12.8 percent to 15 percent. We might rejoice in that gain if not for the fact that Hispanic youth comprise approximately 50 percent of all Catholic youth. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has been known to remark, with sadness, that there are more black Baptist children in our Catholic schools than there are Hispanic Catholic children.

Some bishops and priests think that offering a Mass in Spanish on Sunday with some Mariachi music or guidelines for a quinceñera constitutes “Hispanic ministry.” They are deluded. Last semester I served as a supervisor for a student-teacher in a public school populated by 600 Hispanic children, while the Catholic school two blocks away was three-quarters empty. As I was leaving the school one day, a fourth-grade boy shouted out, “Oh, look, there’s a priest.” Two of his buddies asked, “What’s a priest?”

One day some years up the line, sociologists of religion will accuse the past two generations of clergy of massive pastoral malpractice. Indeed, the only Hispanic immigrant group to maintain its Catholic identity in any substantive way has been the Cubans. And why? Because the Archdiocese of Miami made an historical commitment to the Catholic education of the Cuban refugees. The same can be said of Filipino Catholics in the U.S.

While some bishops talk a lot about their concern for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, that talk tends to ring hollow because it is not followed up by effective and serious pastoral care. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman opined that the Church was often very eager to make converts but, once in, the Church didn’t know what to do with them or perhaps didn’t even care.

So, Mr. Bannon, you got the story all wrong. I wish the Hispanic immigrants were “filling the churches,” but they are not.

No Catholic – particularly no American Catholic – can afford to be “anti-immigrant.” However, we must press for much-needed immigration reform at the civil level; within the family of the Church, we must have an attitude of fraternal welcome, all the while pressing for ecclesiastical policies and programs that ensure whole-hearted practice of the Faith by parents and children alike and a healthy integration into the best elements of American civic and social life. Yours Truly is the proud grandson of four immigrants – a priest with two doctorates, thanks to what the Church did for my grandparents when they arrived a century ago.

Proper attitude and proper action are the keys to “filling the churches” with Catholic immigrants and their children.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 257 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. I believe what’s implied in Steve Bannon’s statement is that the state of the American Church is lamentable, and I believe he’s being charitable. If Bannon is guilty of anything, it’s his candor and hard nosed cynicism.

    If the American Church is to survive, it is going to depend first on immigration, and secondly, the existential commitment of people who choose to commit to Christ and his Church. Catholicism by cultural and ethnic osmosis is over. In the near future – if not now – the fact that a person is Polish, Italian, Mexican or Lithuanian will not insure their religious belief or loyalty. Presently there are thirty million baptized ex-Catholics in the United States.

    My experience of teaching in mostly white middle and upper-middle class parishes is that the state of catechesis in the American Church is abominable. I place that responsibility squarely on the poorly formed bishops and their priests. We are now going on the fourth generation of un-catechized Catholics, and the results are in. Only twenty percent of Catholics attend weekly Mass, and of those who attend, a good number are actually Protestants and don’t even know it. Talk about ignorance.

    The USCCB seems to unwilling to address the real issues confronting the Church. They’re more concerned with global warming and immigration, and therefore the sheep have scattered.

    • “My experience of teaching in mostly white middle and upper-middle class parishes is that the state of catechesis in the American Church is abominable. I place that responsibility squarely on the poorly formed bishops and their priests.”

      Nonsense. The responsibility for educating children is primarily that of the parents. Blaming Bishops and Priests for parents abdicating their obligation is just another example of passing the buck to someone else for one’s own failures. Lest anyone forget the promise made during baptism, here’s a reminder:

      “You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

      • Then why are they asking for $150 per child to enroll them in CCD program?
        Why do the refuse to allow them to be confirmed or make communion if they aren’t enrolled?

        What happened to religious education over the last half century is nothing short of criminal, and there are many bishops and pastors who will have much to answer for because of it.

        To say that CCD is not the biggest waste of time and money and that it’s parents fault is sad. But worse than being inadequate, it could even be, and often is, detrimental to faith.

        Let me tell you of 1 family’s experience in the glory days of V II parish level instruction. 4 kids, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all practicing Catholics, the only one of the kids who is still Catholic is the one who went through the program before it was devastated by the new church. of the other 1 is a pagan (literally – a nature worshipping pagan) the other 2 range from an occasional visit to church to outright hostility.

  2. Thanks for correcting a misconception many of us had regarding ‘filling the pews’. Most Hispanics in my Diocese, Gallup were original settlers from Spain others from Spanish Mexico. They retained a deep sense of their Catholic faith, beautiful traditions and music after they were cut off from the Church following the 1846 US Mexican War. Insofar as today’s Hispanic immigrants it seemed that the high evangelical and other Protestant denominational numbers was largely the result of Protestant evangelizing/proselytizing post WW II and especially post Vat II. Then I don’t have experience in Latin Am as has the author. As described by Fr Stravinskas the Catholic Church has a complex challenge that USCCB leadership seeks to own. Although many are non Catholic though prev Catholic I believe the Church does have a moral obligation despite their largely illegal status.

  3. Could the lack of hispanics in catholic schooling also stem from the fact of the religious vocation crisis. In the waves of immigrants that came to the US in the early 1900 the percentage of clergy and religious sisters was much higher in Catholic schools which in turn made schooling cheaper. I feel for all incoming immigrants, because the price of catholic education for many is not attainable even with all of the amazing grants. With many dedicated laity already sacrificing pay to teach at Catholic Schools we should all be encouraging young men and women to consider Gods call in their lives. Not that this is the only reason for the failure of American Catholics to reach the Hispanic Culture.

  4. In my opinion, the most courageous statement any one of our bishops could make is this: “From this day on, any child who is an immigrant from an Hispanic country in Central or South American can attend any of our Catholics schools free of charge; the Diocese will pay the cost of their Catholic education. It’s the least we can do.”

    • Shouldn’t that include the caveat of legal immigrants only, Deacon?

      “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” Paragraph 2, Section 2241, Catechism of the Catholic Church.

      By the way, if I steal the Christmas collection from my local parish, should my family benefit from that crime?

    • And thus enraging the families who, at great financial sacrifice, send their kids to Catholic schools? Not to mention,fueling ethnic tensions and divisions in an increasingly toxic political climate? Sorry, brother deacon, no sale here. Yes, the Church needs to come up with ways to serve the needs of our growing Hispanic population, and making a Catholic education both feasible and accessible. But that’s not the way to do it.

  5. Father, What was wrong with the immigration system in place when our grandparents arrived? It worked. It served the citizens of this country.
    The US bishops do not respect the legitimate, duely enacted immigration law of the elected congress of this democratic republic. The US bishops prefer PC chaos instead.
    This reflects the pope’s insane remarks about endless immigration to Europe.
    The US bishops have abandoned the sheep which built the Catholic Church in America. Bet on it.

  6. Can we at the very least entertain the possibility that the pews are empty because of the abuse scandal? To some it is a blip to be quickly forgiven and forgotten, to others who are not even victim/survivors or personally know one it was enough to separate from actively engaging in the church. Some may consider this “beating a dead horse”, but I assure you it is not. If the church was a clean fresh sheet of white paper before the crisis and for each act of abuse, revelation of the abuses, ongoing news of the continuing of the abuse a spot of ink, this sheet of paper would only have a few corners and some edge still retaining it’s original untouched parts. No one however wants to speak or acknowledge this fallout that has had exponential results.

  7. Fr Stravinskas makes a vital criticism of Catholic pastoral care, relief programs. From what he notes and from the criticisms of others in the field Church programs Catholic Charities, even Catholic Relief Services have become less Catholic in fact and more nominal in practice. I believe we must provide some form of compassionate pastoral care for immigrants particularly those from S of the Border. The tragic downside is Catholic programs have devolved into exactly what Saul Alinskey envisioned and worked ingeniously to cultivate in the Am Catholic Church. Secular oriented programs dependent on Govt assistance with egalitarian distribution of resources the goal. A tool for promoting a secular socialist society sans meaningful Religious witness. The USCCB is heavily influenced by Alinskey’s thought as is the Vatican seen in its emphasis on social justice rather than morals.

    • Thanks for your honest appraisal of the USCCB. The problem in this country is a lack of solid catechesis and a fear of speaking Truth. The fullness of the faith is not taught in most Catholic Churches or in parochial schools. Until we return to teaching the Faith in its fullness the pews will continue to empty out.

  8. Re: Bumble Bee’s comment. I tend to see the abuse scandal’s impact on the Church in the same way I see Vatican II’s impact. Neither of them are the causes of the Church’s problems that some imagine, rather they served as excuses for those who had already checked out mentally and spiritually to check out physically.

  9. The Church needs to get some sense. Instead of betting on “Alpha” bet soup, with missing letters and truths, she needs to properly evangelize with courageous preaching and teaching of the truth. Getting back to the directions of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for restoring proper worship and liturgy – “As we worship, so we believe.” Where have all the Catholics gone and why? What are the causes for the exodus?

  10. An obvious problem is the failure to recognize that all “justice” just like all sin is “social.” Instead of dumping the red herring “Seamless garment,” the liberals are trying to enlarge the intended confusion by adding immigration and global warming to the garment, like “racism” has been added. Liberals need those extra tags for the Catholic In Name Only politicians and their fawning voters to latch onto as “justification” for voting for pro-abortion. But, no worry huh, the next Faithful Citizenship document will provide the necessary ambiguity for such justification.

  11. In my parish Hispanics make up 90% of parishioners. 40% are Mexican immigrants. It is the immigrants who contribute the most. Our collections was at about 1,200.00 a week, when the immigrants came it went up to almost 5,000.00 a week. They put in all their efforts for fundraising to benefit the parish. The question of our responsibilities towards immigrants goes all the way back to the Mayflower. Christ put it all into a nutshell, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me”. Lets start getting serious!!!

    • That’s great, but I think the mileage may vary. At our parish, many Hispanics donate a dollar or two to the collections, while others who are not Hispanic give ten times as much. Father addressed this, in that many of them are poor, and also, they were not taught to support the local churches where they originally lived. It is no bad reflection on them in places where their giving is not so generous.

      One important point made in this article is that, like the Italians and the Irish before them, Hispanics coming to the US need serious pastoral care and intervention. It was done with the previous two groups and the tough love shown by the bishops changed them from violent underclasses to educated citizens who loved their faith and lived it. We know a Dominican friar who serves in Mexicali, and he has been spending his time re-evangelizing the paganized people who have become victims of syncretism between Catholicism and local pagan religions. For those who make it here, they need the same care and catechism he’s been giving them. But, how many sees and parishes tend to this? I know ours does, and it’s a huge project, and why we have two Hispanic priests. But we also have what seem to be two separate parishes, and many of the Hispanic parishioners have no idea that our pastor is the pastor; they think it’s the older Hispanic priest. We still have a long way to go to become fully integrated!

      • You write of the negative part of the Hispanics, is there anything positive you could perhaps say about them? Mexicans in Mexico who are poor give what we consider little, but it is what Christ calls the widows mite. They donate chickens, eggs fruits and vegetables etc… to the Priest. In Parishes in Mexico the people do a great deal of volunteer work which saves the parish Church a lot of money. Volunteer Catechists teach the catechism from only one book. Those parishes do not waste a whole of money. Because of this a parish could easily be self supportive on about 100.00 American dollars a year. Our parish seems like a, for profit business. It is the Hispanics who do all the work for all the fundraisers and the parish just reels in the profits and then mispend it. I could go on and on. I think maybe parishes in the US should learn from Mexican parishes on how to run a parish.

      • You say you know a Dominican Friar who is re-evangelizing the paganized people of Mexicali, sorry but that was 5 centuries ago. Catholics in Mexico still live the evangelization given by the Spaniards, mainly, Trust in God’s Providence and live life to the fullest while doing all that God says to do. The Dominican Friar could possibly be a Modernist who sees what the Spaniards taught the people as paganism, paganism because it happened 500 years before Vatican ll. Mexicans are in fact being re-evangelized here in the United States. Which is why Mexicans are leaving the Catholic Church in droves.

  12. Fr. Stavinskas is right about Bannon misdiagnosing the problem. But he completely ignores another elephant in the room. And that is our bishops are knee-jerk leftists on issues that lie outside of faith and morals per se. They engage in the same smear tactics against those who disagree with them as secular leftists do.

    Only they do it under the false guise of Church teaching. Until THAT issue gets addressed, this will not only go on unabated, but will get much worse.

  13. Fr. Stravinskas has it right. Evangelization is practically nonexistent in the U.S. Most dioceses don’t even have an office of evangelization. The Church in the U.S. is slowly dying and the bishops are complacent about it. It is easier to close churches than it is to fill them.

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