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Diocese faces demand for Spanish-speaking priests

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The Diocese of Arlington is facing an increasing demand for Spanish-speaking priests as the Hispanic community in Northern Virginia continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The Hispanic community in the diocese makes up approximately 46 percent of its Catholic population, according to the diocesan Spanish Apostolate.


“As the Hispanic community grows, this is noticeable in weekly participation in the parishes. A great example of it can be observed in this liturgical time of Lent,” said Father José Hoyos, director of the Spanish Apostolate. “There are parishes that must celebrate up to five Masses in Spanish because of the number of people who participate in the church’s Lenten activities.”


It is estimated that Hispanics make up more than 60 percent of Catholics under the age of 18, according to the apostolate. Within the diocese, the most populous communities are from El Salvador and Mexico. Other communities are from Honduras, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia and other Central and South American countries. The diocese has Hispanic ministry in 35 of its 70 parishes and in two of its five missions. According to the Mass Count in 2018, 50 percent of the parishes offer a Mass in Spanish, while only 26 parishes offer Mass in English only. The two largest Spanish-speaking communities within the diocese are in Manassas and Woodbridge.


“The community also is growing because many people and sometimes entire families must immigrate to this country due to the difficult situations facing their countries of origin,” said Father Hoyos. Most Hispanic families are large, according to Father Hoyos.


As the Spanish-speaking population continues to increase, so does the need for priests who can minister to them in their language and address their needs. The challenge is being felt by pastors, according to Father Paul Scalia, diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy.


Pastors of parishes with growing Hispanic populations need staff and lay ministers who can speak Spanish, according to Father Scalia.


“It is going to become standard for the work of the Gospel in this area to minister to those who speak Spanish,” said Father Scalia, saying that priests and seminarians should not hesitate to learn the language. “The need will be presenting itself. We need to be learning it now.”


Father Scalia said that priests with no knowledge of Spanish can assist those in need of their ministry by at least reading the rites in Spanish to administer the Sacraments. However, more than basic language skills are needed, Father Scalia said — aside from administering the Sacraments, priests should be able to help the faithful through marriage preparation and counseling.


Aside from language, cultural understanding is also an essential element of priestly ministry.


“Having to learn their culture is very important,” said Father Michael Isenberg, diocesan director of vocations. “It’s more than just the language — it’s understanding people, where they come from, their customs.”


According to Father Hoyos, the majority of Hispanic communities in the diocese retain their language, culture and religious traditions despite assimilation into American society.


‘They need priests with knowledge of their Hispanic religiosity, popular devotions and cultural aspects that are part of their lives,” said Father Hoyos, who suggested that learning to understand Hispanic cultures be part of priestly formation.


Vocations to the priesthood from the Hispanic community would provide a solution to these challenges. However, as of yet, that has not occurred on a large scale.


“The main problem we have is that there are not a lot of Hispanic vocations coming in from Hispanic communities themselves,” said Father Isenberg.


Father Isenberg said the Vocations office has been working to encourage vocations with the help of local Hispanic priests. For example, Father Mauricio Pineda, parochial vicar of All Saints Church in Manassas started a weeklong summer camp last year to encourage vocations among Hispanic youths and hopes to expand the program this year.


There are currently only 16 Hispanic priests serving in the diocese, two of whom are retired but continue to assist due to the great demand for their ministry.


“All of them are very active in their parishes,” said Father Hoyos. “I think the work they do is phenomenal, because within our diocese we have multiculturalism within the Hispanic community itself.”


He explained that the Hispanic priests perform their ministry seamlessly despite geographical and cultural differences within the diocese’s Spanish-speaking population. “This is not an impediment to them,” he said.


For example, Father Hoyos said, a Salvadoran priest can celebrate the popular Mexican feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or a Colombian priest can celebrate the Feast of El Salvador del Mundo, which has special significance for Salvadorans.


“In the end, we all have something in common,” said Father Hoyos. “We all speak Español.”


Fletcher can be reached at zita.fletcher@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zbfletcherACH. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019