Another student has submitted a reflection from Ministry in a Multicultural Church, a course for college-four and pre-theology students at Mount Angel Seminary. Ms. Kathy Akiyama teaches the course.
Hispanics in the Catholic Church
by Brother Matthias Lambrecht, OCD
Upon reading the article on "Hispanic Gifts" by Virgilio Elizondo, which is nestled in the class handout "Many Faces in God's House," a quote from Archbishop Edward McCarthy drew my attention: "Hispanics are not a problem to be dealt with, but a gift to be appreciated." Amen, my good shepherd! Following this quote, Elizondo asserts that he and all Hispanics have much to receive from the Catholicism of the U.S., but on the flip side, Hispanics have much to contribute.
One such contribution Elizondo mentions is the "home-centered" feature of Hispanic Catholicism. Because Catholics throughout Latin America did not always have priests, or at least enough priests to serve them, the home altar became the "main source of religious enrichment and community" for families. In this sacred space of the home, it was the abuelitas (grandmothers) who normally shared the faith, led prayer, and gave blessings. Elizondo shared that this religion of the home - religion casera, with its home altar, is a "great contribution to a culture that has secularized home life or limited God to the Church," and furthermore makes "God easily accessible to everyone" in their daily lives.
Before I entered the Carmelites, I was a youth ministry coordinator in a parish with a very large Hispanic population. I became good friends with one particular Hispanic family, and once they invited me to pray the rosary with them in front of their home altar. This was a new experience for me. Before I had left the nest for college, my family's home had crucifixes and religious art here and there, and I continued this sign of devotion later in my college dorm rooms and apartments. However, this family's elaborate home altar, complete with Christmas lights woven in between the statues and pictures, was a focal point in the home and a place to gather for prayer.
I can recall some amazement as the entire family present that day, old and young, perhaps thirteen of them, gathered at the home altar for the rosary and dropped to their knees on the hardwood floor! I followed suit, through at that time, had limited my kneeling to soft, padded kneelers during Mass. In all honesty, I felt repulsed to be kneeling this way, and I am not sure if I actually persevered on my knees during the whole rosary. Yet, more importantly, the sacrifice, devotion, and prayerfulness of this family impacted me, and today, I am happy to kneel in front of my own home altar in my Carmelite cell.
The above article mentioned the Hispanic tradition's gift of the home altar to a culture that has "secularized home life or limited God to the Church." I think this statement is generally an apt description of the U.S. Catholic culture. Many U.S. Catholics tend to compartmentalize their faith/religious observance, home life, jobs, etc., seeing them as separate entities and tasks to be accomplished. Our homes are places of comfort, not temples of God's presence and environments of prayer. In my own home life experience while growing up, I was blessed to have some communal prayer (mostly before meals), but if we prayed an infrequent rosary together, the setting was the living room, kicked back in recliners. This might explain my discomfort to being on my knees! Yet, in retrospect, I believe my home life experience of prayer was a privileged one, and not the norm for most American Catholics. We can learn how to better form the home life of families into the domestic church it is meant to be from the example of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.
Another challenge of U.S. Catholicism is passing on the faith in the home. The evangelization and catechesis of our young is too often dependent upon a parish program and compartmentalized from the home. I would assert that our society is overly dependent upon specialization, to the point where many parents and grandparents feel incapable of transmitting the faith to their young with words and by leading prayer. U.S. culture can learn from the Hispanic tradition of the abuelitas sharing faith wisdom and leading prayer, which encourages the family not to depend solely on a youth or children's program for the faith to be handed down.
In the article, Elizondo shared that Hispanics also have much to receive from Catholicism in this country. How so? In Latin America, many Latinos learned to be less dependent on the priest because of the shortage of priests, perhaps only being able to have Mass monthly, and became more dependent upon the faith life of the home. Yet, in America, where we have more priests and greater access to the sacraments, Hispanics should be encouraged to embrace the Church's beautiful teaching that the "source and summit" of our lives comes from weekly, or even daily, Eucharist - which then flows into our homes and permeates every dimension of our lives. Our gathering in our home is a microcosm of our gathering for the Mass. U.S. Catholics of Hispanic and non-Hispanic background can learn from each other to strengthen the bond of these crucial realities that must be lived to the full.
Jesus' thirty years of hidden life with Mary and Joseph is a powerful example to emulate. The glimpses we catch in the Gospels show a family steeped in their Jewish tradition, gathering at the synagogue and temple. And in their home life - we can only imagine the prayerfulness and joy of Mary and Joseph in having Emmanuel, "God with us," in their midst constantly. Having the baby Jesus in the home was like having the ultimate home altar - not just pointing us to God like home altars do, but actually being God's presence in the flesh, permeating the home.
In fact, the early Christians would gather to celebrate Mass extremely early on Sundays because they live in the Roman Empire where everyone worked that day, and following Mass, they would carry a piece of the Eucharist back to their homes to be placed in a tabernacle there. In their homes throughout the following week, they would bask in the Lord's Risen Presence physically with them in the Eucharist, and break off a piece of the Eucharist to consume daily and commune with the Risen Savior. The realities of the Holy Family's hidden life and the practice of the early Church should inspire our vision for a strong communal life with the whole Body of Christ, dependent upon and longing to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist AND having a non-compartmentalized life of faith and devotion in our homes.
Through reflecting on my experience of the home altar in my friends' home, I have come to more fully realize the enrichment that moment gave to my life. The family's sacrificial example, which encouraged me to kneel along with them, was an important step for me in moving past my selfishness in regard to comfort. Through my friends' example and that of others, I have a home altar in my cell, along with a few of my favorite religious images, to help me not fall into seeing my cell as just a room to study and sleep in, but to bridge the gap between the Holy Mass and Jesus' continued presence with me especially while I am in my cell. In this reflection, I have heard the Lord encouraging me to do what I can, especially as a priest, to promote the Hispanic tradition of the home altar among all Catholics as a way to bridge the U.S. Catholic culture's gap between the Mass and our faith and home life.