Father Arturo Banuelas has a solution for the growing number of Catholic young adults leaving the church: Get them to care about and serve others.
"What happens is that begins to change the way you see religion," Banuelas said of the youths of the St. Pius X Parish in El Paso, Texas, who give service in the impoverished Sierra Mountains of Mexico.
Caring for the poor opens the door to meaningful Bible study and teaching of Catholic doctrines, which lead to a deep, personal and longlasting commitment to their faith, said Banuelas, who has been pastor over the parish since 1988.
"That turns them on to the Lord big time, to use their language," he said.
And it's the kind of program more parishes should adopt if they want to prevent Hispanic Americans, particularly youths, from adopting the American way of often switching religions, according to scholars who study the migrating faith of Latinos in America.
A recent survey of Hispanics in the United States showed 69 percent said they were raised Roman Catholic, but only 53 percent said they remain affiliated with the Catholic faith of their youth. Young adults under age 30 had the lowest percentage of affiliation with the Catholic Church (42 percent) and the highest percentage (15 percent) of those saying they were unaffiliated.
The data from the Public Religion Research Institute's 2013 Hispanic Values Survey also confirm other trends shown in previous studies — namely, that Hispanic evangelical Protestants are increasing in number, and the group of those who say they have no religion is growing even faster.
"I attribute that to (the fact that) the percentage of Latinos who are not immigrants is growing," said Tim Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in Latino Catholicism. "We’ve known for a while now that the further people move away from the immigrant generation, the more likely they are to move and switch, which is not surprising. That’s true in American life generally."
More than four in 10 Americans (44 percent) no longer belong to their childhood faith, a 2009 Pew Research Center study found, with 33 percent having joined another religious community and 11 percent becoming unaffiliated.
Hispanics are no exception to this trend, Matovina said, particularly those who were born in the United States and are two or three generations removed from their immigrant ancestors — most of whom were Catholic.
For example, the Pew study found the proportion of Hispanic Catholics who have changed religions jumped from 15 percent among first-generation immigrants to 23 percent among the second generation and 22 percent for the third generation.
Scholars say many of those making a break from their ancestral faith are simply following a long-held pattern for children of immigrants: they leave home for school or work, marry someone of another faith, assimilate into new social groups or become consumed in making a living, and soon religion is no longer a priority in their life.
But Matovina said there are some circumstances unique to the current Hispanic American experience that account for a flight from faith, particularly by youths who are not feeling as successful or integrated as the grandchildren of immigrants did in the 1940s or 1950s.
Today's Hispanic American youths "don’t belong with their immigrant parents and are not feeling totally accepted and integrated ... into society in general," he said. "So that can lead to religious disassociation. A certain kind of apathy almost."
Another experience recounted in his book "Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church" (Princeton University Press, 2011), tells of an email from one of Matovina's Hispanic students who didn't need the church the way her immigrant mother did.
"The church was there for my mom in her sufferings and I felt it and I loved it for that," the student wrote. "It became a part of me, but that isn’t my experience of life anymore. I have learned that I don’t have to suffer through everything. I have the resources to fight oppression."
The PRRI study suggests that the Hispanic Catholics who are leaving the faith of their childhood may be joining the ranks of evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated.
Seven percent of Hispanics said they were raised evangelical Protestants, compared with 13 percent who say they are now evangelical Protestant. Growing at a slightly faster rate — from 5 percent to 12 percent — were those with no religious affiliation.
Religious switching is also an American phenomenon that studies show can happen to a person more than once, even among Hispanics, who may be seeking a more spiritual experience similar to that in their homeland or who may simply be presented with more choices in America.
"There is a lot more moving around than meets the eye," he said. "It's not just unidirectional movement from the Catholic Church into evangelicals and unaffiliated, but there is dynamic movement going on in all directions."
That fits the profile of Arlene Sanchez Walsh, a fourth generation Hispanic American and professor of church history and Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University, near Los Angeles.
She was raised Catholic, but personal conflicts with church teachings prompted her to look elsewhere and she joined a Pentecostal faith. She now prefers mainline Protestant churches, including her husband's childhood Presbyterian faith, and has settled on the Episcopalian church.
"Our oldest (child) has started asking what we are," Walsh said, explaining why she sought out a new church.
She considers her faith journey unusual for most Hispanic Americans, who would not be as interested in theology as she is. In her research, she finds most second- and third-generation Hispanic Catholics drift away from their faith because of competition for their time.
"For some they are just burned out, but in terms of real rebellion there is not much there," Walsh said. "Religion is now a choice for them that is secondary to the larger questions of who am I and how am I going to make it."
Father Banuelas said his approach tries to answer those big questions when his Hispanic members are in their youth through service projects. Each summer, St. Pius Parish youth groups head to Mexico to serve poor, indigenous families scattered in the Sierra Madre mountains by helping with home repairs, playing games with children, holding self-help seminars or assisting health care professionals from other organizations.
"When they come back they start questioning if the way they live has anything to do with people’s suffering and poverty across the border," Banuelas said. "Things like immigration reform, natural resources, food, water and other things make sense in a different way.
"Then, you can start talking about scripture and teachings because (the youths) know the people we are talking about," he said.
Leaders of the youth ministry are selected from among the young adults and trained to reach out to their peers to help them with challenges they have with family, drugs, relationships, school or other issues that may be unfamiliar to their parents.
"A lot of them are struggling in their homes because their parents aren’t there, so there is a really deep sense that we are family," Banuelas said. "They don’t even call it a parish. They call it their family."
Matovina said the bonds are so strong and meaningful that he has seen students at Notre Dame give up lucrative job opportunities after graduation and return to El Paso for the opportunity to continue volunteer work in the parish.
"Their Catholic faith calls them to do whatever they are called to do before material success," he said. "(Father Banuelas) just has it humming down there."
Other things that can connect Hispanics back to Catholicism even if they have left it, Walsh said, are the "social rhythms" of Hispanic life that often center around the church, such as baptisms, marriages and religious holidays.
Those strong familial and cultural ties are leading factors that will keep levels of disaffiliation among Hispanics below the current 20 percent found among all Americans, Walsh predicted.
"I was raised Catholic. I have a cousin who’s a priest, so it’s rooted very much in who I am," she said, explaining how cultural aspects of Catholicism will always be a part of her life.
"This is an anchor of familiarity that has been passed down to you."
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