Friday, December 29, 2006

La Nueva Iglesia Norteamericana

Lost in the Christmas shuffle: a piece in the NYTimes Sunday magazine on the US church, Latinized... not so much in the direction of "Et cum spiritum tuo," but of "Y con tu espíritu."
Nationally, Hispanics account for 39 percent of the Catholic population, or something over 25 million of the nation’s 65 million Roman Catholics; since 1960, they have accounted for 71 percent of new Catholics in the United States. The vast increase, both proportionally and in absolute numbers, is mostly because of the surge in immigration from Latin America, above all from Mexico, that has taken place over the course of the past three decades. Today, more than 40 percent of the Hispanics residing in the United States, legally and illegally, are foreign-born, and the fate of the American Catholic Church has become inextricably intertwined with the fate of these immigrants and their descendants.

Nowhere is this clearer today than in Los Angeles. One key to the history of the city (mostly forgotten by non-Latinos) is the fact that the great migration of Mexican nationals northward in the past 30 years has a precedent in the 1920s, when waves of migrants flowed into California after the failure of the Cristero rebellion — an uprising against the abolition of many of the church’s privileges by Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. The regime of President Plutarco Elías Calles suppressed the Cristeros ruthlessly. (“The Power and the Glory,” Graham Greene’s novel that follows the hunting down of a “whisky priest” by government forces, is set during the Cristero rebellion.)

On one level, this is all ancient history, yet for many new immigrants from Mexico, the echoes linger on. One battle cry of Cristerismo, as it was known, was “Long Live the Virgin of Guadalupe,” a reference to the apparition of Mary that Mexican Catholics believe appeared to a native Mexican in the 16th century. In a caustic moment, the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz suggested that Mexicans believe only in two things: the national lottery and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The fascination continues: ask any Border Patrol agent, and he will tell you that many of the illegal immigrants whom the service intercepts today wear tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In the aftermath of their defeat, many of the Cristeros — by some estimates as much as 5 percent of Mexico’s population — fled to America. Many of them made their way to Los Angeles, where they found a protector in John Joseph Cantwell, the bishop of what was then the Los Angeles-San Diego diocese. Though he was born in Limerick, Ireland, Cantwell was determined to serve his Hispanic congregants. During the course of his tenure, Cantwell created dozens of new Hispanic parishes and missions — this at a time when race relations in L.A. were at a nadir, and the bishop’s mostly Irish congregants wanted little or nothing to do with their Mexican co-religionists.

The Cristeros arrived in the tens of thousands, but the current wave of immigrants dwarfs their numbers. Roger Mahony, the current cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, likes to point out that the United States is reaching “the greatest levels of immigration in our nation’s history,” and to him and others in the church hierarchy, the new arrivals herald a rebirth of American Catholicism. Many within the church also say that these new arrivals could reverse the trend toward more tolerant attitudes on issues like contraception and abortion — what orthodox believers dismissively call cafeteria Catholicism. If Los Angeles is the epicenter for the astonishing Hispanicization of the American Catholic Church, it is also the site of a return to orthodoxy....

What is taking place in Los Angeles is an erasing of the border between Catholicism in the United States and Catholicism in the rest of the Americas. When I asked Mahony about the Virgin of Guadalupe or the church’s view on immigration, he referred to studies and declarations issued jointly by American and Mexican prelates. In a sense, as mass immigration and economic interdependence have all but erased California’s southern border, so the Hispanicization of the American Catholic Church has made it increasingly part of a single pan-American Catholicism.

But even the Virgin of Guadalupe, powerful though she is symbolically, would be no more than a symbol were Latino Catholics not convinced of the sincerity of their church’s commitment to them. The authority of the church in L.A. finally boils down to the fact that for the poor, the church has come through and continues to come through. When all is said and done, can a poor immigrant really depend on anyone else caring about his or her immortal soul and also his or her material fate?
It's a very long piece -- still making my own way through it. But as a sign that the amped-up, all-over Latino outreach in LA is only the vanguard of the trend, in a first New York St Patrick's Cathedral instituted a weekly Sunday evening Mass in Spanish this past fall. Word on the street is that the crowd keeps growing with each one.