Hoping for a Latino Archbishop, Eventually
Michael Nagle The New York Times March 2, 2009
Latinos account for at least half of the Roman Catholics in New York. Their neighborhood churches are often filled to capacity. Parishes originally named for Irish saints have been renamed for Hispanic ones. Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral honoring the feast days of their patron saints draw crowds so large and fervent that worshipers sometimes spill out onto Fifth Avenue to pray on their knees on the sidewalk.
And when the Vatican announced last week that the next leader of the Archdiocese of New York would be Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee — the 10th in an unbroken line of Irish-American archbishops to hold that job since 1842 — Latino Catholics in New York reacted as they would to news of another sunrise over the East River.
The muted response did not reflect indifference to the new archbishop, whom many people seemed to like, or to the notion that appointing a prelate with a Hispanic name instead of a Celtic one might be smart: Latinos are not only ascendant in New York, but also likely to be the majority of Catholics in the United States within a decade. The archbishop of New York, with his pulpit in the media nexus of the world, has been called the pope of America.
As Latino leaders described their reaction, it was more like accepting the limits of one’s options in the family business.
“It’s not called St. Patrick’s Cathedral for nothing,” said Richard Espinal, executive director of Centro Altagracia for Faith and Justice, a Jesuit-sponsored Latino advocacy group in Harlem. “The old guard of Irish-American priests — that’s still the church’s power base in New York. I have no problem with it. I’m just happy to read in the paper that the new archbishop can say Mass in Spanish.”
By historians’ account, Irish immigrants and their offspring essentially built the Catholic Church in America. Between 1840 and 1880, Irish immigration accounted for most of the sixfold increase in the country’s Catholic population, to 6 million. The influx fueled a boom in church and school construction, much of it with Irish labor, that culminated with the completion of St. Patrick’s in 1878.
But Latinos in New York today are almost the statistical twins of Irish New Yorkers of the late 19th century: They account for 30 percent of the city’s population and, by the archdiocese’s estimate, 40 to 50 percent of its 2.5 million Catholics — an estimate that community advocates say probably misses large numbers of undocumented immigrants.
And while the archdiocese has welcomed Latinos — rededicating churches and underwriting tuition for Hispanic students in its parochial schools — they have not inherited the vast stake in the institution that their Irish-American forbears have.
There are still far more Irish-American priests than Latino ones in New York, as in most of the country. The board of directors of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation, which sponsors the New York Archdiocese’s biggest fund-raiser of the year, a white-tie dinner that attracts the city’s political and business elite, still reflects the white Catholic population that arrived in New York a century and more ago, and is mostly Irish-American.
Appointing a Latino archbishop in New York would not change the fundamental equation, but it would send a message, some community leaders said.
“This was a lost opportunity,” said the Rev. Ray Rivera, founder of the Latino Pastoral Action Center in the Bronx, a network of evangelical ministries that promotes economic development and operates a charter school.
Mr. Rivera is a former Catholic, like many evangelical Protestants, and evangelicals have given the Catholic Church stiff competition in courting Latinos. But he knows the landscape of Hispanic faith in New York.
“The Catholic Church’s renewal in New York is due to the Latino community,” he said. “Naming an archbishop who reflects the fastest-growing constituency it has would have sent a message that this church is not in a world apart.”
More typical, though, was the sentiment of Joel Magallan, who was a Jesuit brother when he was recruited by Cardinal John J. O’Connor in the 1990s to organize the first observance of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For many Latinos, the Dec. 12 observance of the feast, a Mexican rite signifying the apparition of the Virgin Mary near Mexico City in 1531, is the most important holy day after Christmas. “When they realized that Mexicans were coming to the city for work, they opened the doors to bring our celebration into the cathedral,” said Mr. Magallan, who is no longer in the order. “When so many people showed up, they couldn’t fit inside. I asked O’Connor why we don’t go to Yankee Stadium. He said: ‘Because St. Patrick’s is the symbol of the Catholic Church in New York, Joel. You have to bring the people here.’
“To me, the Irish are the masters of immigration. They understand what it means better than anybody.”
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a scholar of Latino Catholicism and a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, said half-jokingly of himself and everyone who grew up Catholic in America in the last century under the tutelage of Irish-American priests, “We’re all Irish Catholics.”
A Latino will be appointed archbishop of New York in due course, he said, as the Vatican grooms Hispanic priests for prestigious “pipeline” posts as heads of important seminaries and dioceses.
In the past decade, the Vatican has appointed Hispanic bishops to lead 12 dioceses in the United States, or about 6 percent of the 195 dioceses nationwide. With one exception, all are in the West and Southwest, including the dioceses of San Antonio; El Paso and Laredo, Tex.; Yakima, Wash.; and Sacramento, where Latino populations are flourishing. The exception was the archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, led by Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, who was reported to be under consideration to succeed the New York archbishop, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who will retire in April.
In New York, church officials have struggled with changing demographics since at least the 1960s, when Cardinal Terence J. Cooke began sending priests to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish in response to the first wave of newcomers from that island territory, said Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the diocese’s vicar general, or first deputy to Cardinal Egan.
“Our main problem is we need more priests,” Bishop Sullivan said. “Spanish-speaking and otherwise.”
The shortage of priests, especially those who speak Spanish or understand Latino culture, has coincided with the growing defection of Latino Catholics to evangelical Christian denominations with Hispanic ministers, like the Pentecostals.
But Bishop Sullivan said communication between a priest and his flock is about more than language. “What is most important is that the bishop be able to communicate,” he said, “and I think Archbishop Dolan’s eloquence was evident to Catholics in the pictures of him. His smile is its own language.”
Archbishop Dolan said last week that while he had studied Spanish and could say Mass in the language, he was not fluent.
William J. Flynn, a longtime fund-raiser for the church and a past grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, said the archdiocese had reached out as best as it could to Latinos, given “the difficulties, the language problems and so forth.”
He said he was “happy to see the Irish have found a home in the leadership of this diocese — but the day of the Irish is coming to a close.”
Mr. Flynn, 82, a retired insurance executive and the son of an Irish immigrant, said he saw the history of Latino immigration in America as no different from that of the Irish, “and that includes our illegal residents.”
“Their sons and daughters are going to be running our country and fighting our wars,” he said. “So I fully expect that we will have a man of Spanish heritage as archbishop of New York.”
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