Latinos will soon comprise the majority of U.S. Catholics. At the same time, many Hispanics are being drawn away from Catholicism by the appeal of smaller fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations with their powerful preaching, inculturated religious rituals, and ability to foster a deep sense of belonging. Cognizant of these realities, Eduardo Fernandez has written this thought-provoking book to reflect on the historical and contemporary status of Mexican Americans in the Catholic Church and to suggest ways that pastoral agents can better meet their spiritual and pastoral needs today. This book, therefore, should be of great interest to those who minister with and among Mexican-American Catholics, as well as those who seek to recognize and celebrate the diversity and cultural richness that Mexican Americans bring to the Catholic Church.
In the first part of the book, Fernandez traces the religious history of Mexicans and uses demographic and interview data to describe current trends and future projections of Mexican Americans’ experience with Catholicism. Fernandez begins by recounting the centuries-old, pre-Christian histories of the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs, as well as the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the introduction of Catholicism to the indigenous civilizations. The indigenous peoples’ encounters with Christianity, readers learn, were not always positive, and in some cases quite brutal. Although many Spanish Franciscan and Dominican missionaries won over the indigenous by learning their languages and cultures, some Spanish churchmen imposed their own form of Catholicism with little regard for indigenous customs. Eventually, with the spread of Catholicism came the development of distinctly Mexican folk religious practices and a native Mexican clergy throughout the region, including what is now the American Southwest. It wasn’t until after the Mexican-American War of 1848, according to Fernandez, that these distinctly Mexican expressions of Catholicism came under attack by the newly arriving French- and Irish-Catholic pioneers to the American Southwest, who remade Catholicism in their own image and disregarded Mexican cultural traditions well into the 20th century. As a result, Fernandez argues, many Hispanic Catholics today believe they are not given adequate representation in an institutional church which continues to view them “as objects of mission” in need of assimilation (45).
Given this history of exclusion by Catholic leaders and the assertive evangelization strategies of many fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations, how might Catholic pastoral leaders reach out to Mexican Americans today? Fernandez seeks to answer this question throughout the remainder of the book by referencing his own interviews with pastoral agents and identifying what he describes as the five traits of Mexican and Mexican-American spirituality – its complexity, its popularity and communality, its festivity, its relationality, and its transcendence. These components of Mexican spirituality, Fernandez argues, hold the key to successful outreach to the Mexican-American community, and therefore he believes that they must be preserved and fostered in Catholic liturgical and pastoral practices if the Catholic Church is to retain its Mexican and Mexican-American adherents.
Although I largely agree with Fernandez’s argument here and appreciate this book’s theological and pastoral depth, as a sociologist, I would have liked to see more evidence to back up this claim. For instance, one of the ways Fernandez supports his argument is by pointing out that many fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations which have successfully recruited Mexican Americans have done so by incorporating many of the folk religious practices that characterize the Mexican Catholic experience, such as devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have no reason to doubt this claim, and it seems like there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. However, as a sociologist, I can’t help but think that social scientists can and should supply theologians like Fernandez with more compelling evidence – i.e., evidence based on systemic observation and data collection from representative samples of congregations – to examine the ways in which various dimensions of inculturation influence the communal and private spiritual and devotional lives of worshipers. Notice that this is not so much of criticism of Fernandez, who writes out of his expertise as a pastoral theologican, but of sociologists of religion, who seem like they could supply more evidence for theologians like him.
One of the most interesting chapters for me – and I suspect for other readers – is Chapter 6 “Pastoral Challenges and Opportunities” which follows a question and answer format to address frequently asked questions regarding ministry with and among Mexican-Americans. I found this chapter to be quite captivating and extremely practical for those in ministry. In addition to offering many practical suggestions for reaching out to the Mexican-American community, this chapter answers a variety of questions that pastoral ministers often ask and dispenses of various misconceptions surrounding Mexican-Americans.
So, what does Fernandez suggest that pastoral agents do to be more responsive to the cultural traditions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans? First, he suggests that pastoral agents learn as much about their congregations as possible – their national origins, immigrant histories, languages, cultures, family structures, education levels, etc. Second, he suggests that since many traditional Mexican religious celebrations (e.g., Las Posadas, Los Pastores, El Dia de los Reyes, etc.) take place in the home or neighborhoods, parishes should conduct home visits and help to sponsor these celebrations as a way of inviting people in the neighborhood to carry out these practices in communion with the parish. These celebrations are especially important for recent immigrants who see them as a “way of reconnecting with their native communities, as well as passing on their living traditions to children” (114). Third, he suggests that pastoral leaders recognize and celebrate the attraction among Mexican Americans to devotions to Mary and saints, to religious rituals that stress “the emotive over the rational” (83), to processions and pilgrimages that mark new beginnings and spiritual renewal, and to artistic exuberance in music, dance, and symbols. Fourth, he suggests that ministers learn to “read the Bible in Spanish,” by which he means to interpret and reflect on Scripture from a Hispanic perspective, one that is often characterized by the experiences of poverty and marginalization. Finally, he suggests that pastoral leaders and theologians engage in theological reflection that is fully in touch with the Mexican American experience in terms of its cultural and socioeconomic realities.
From a pastoral and theological perspective, Mexican American Catholics is clearly an excellent book. It provides concrete suggestions for pastoral leaders who work with and among Mexican American Catholics, and for general readers, it presents a concise and engaging description of the historical and present-day spiritual journey of this important and growing segment of the U.S. Catholic population. I highly recommend it.