Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to reflect on Hispanic contributions to society, the Church


National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed in the United States from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 each year.

The dates coincide with the Independence Day celebrations for five Latin American countries.

The purpose is to note the contributions and positive influences of Hispanic people in this country.

The theme for this year’s observance is “Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation.”

“Hispanic” generally refers to people who came from Central or South America or the Caribbean, or whose ancestors did so, and who speak Spanish as a first or main language.

Their collective heritage spans numerous nationalities, cultures, dialects and places of origin, encompassing roughly two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. Census figures show the number of people who identify as Hispanic within the boundaries of the Jefferson City diocese rose by 25 percent between 2010 and 2019 — from 27,634 to 34,615.

They are currently the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in these 38 counties.

Some arrived here recently, some go back many generations.

Many are Catholic or at least have strong familial or cultural ties to the Catholic Church.

An increasing number of parishes in this diocese offer a Spanish-language option for Sunday worship.

Many parishes with large Hispanic populations report robust Mass attendance, along with vigorous engagement in parish activities and spiritual movements such as Cursillo and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

In focusing on evangelization, personal encounter, community and accompaniment, people who are engaged in Hispanic ministry here are helping to lead Hispanics and Anglos alike into deeper communion with God in His Church.

Deep reverence

The Church in central and northeastern Missouri has much to celebrate and much to learn in ministering to, with and through Hispanic Catholics.

Hispanic culture and Missouri Catholic culture are becoming more firmly entwined.

First-, second- and third-generation Hispanics are taking up leadership roles in their communities and the Church.

Grounded in the Eucharist, in family, in community, in ethnic and Catholic identities, in personal devotions handed down from their ancestors, in evangelical zeal, and in reliance on the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, these Hispanic Catholics have invigorated and even in some cases revived the parishes they’ve become a part of.

Father Anthony Viviano recently became pastor of Annunciation Parish in California and neighboring St. Andrew Parish in Tipton.

The California parish has a vibrant Hispanic population.

Fr. Viviano quickly noticed the awe and reverence with which many Hispanic families approach the Mass and the Holy Eucharist.

“I can tell you from a personal, priestly perspective, their reverence is edifying and encourages me to see the importance of being a priest,” he said.

He noticed that most of his Hispanic parishioners prefer to kneel for Holy Communion and to receive on the tongue.

He observed that while many come to Mass each Sunday, not all of them present themselves for Holy Communion.

“There is an ingrained understanding that has been taught and learned in their countries of origin, that the Eucharist is sacred, and you don’t receive it casually,” the priest noted.

He’s working to allay their reluctance by hearing Confessions with his limited Spanish-language skills.

“I am trying,” he said.

Strong witness

Deacon John Weaver is the parish life collaborator for St. Mary Parish in Milan and the Mission of St. Mary in Unionville.

“The depth of the faith of many Hispanics must certainly be apparent to non-Hispanic community members,” he stated.

He said a large Hispanic contingent helps bring abundant life to the Milan parish.

“The Hispanic prayer group meets weekly in church to pray for both particular and general needs of the community and beyond,” he noted. “They also gather at any time of crisis or loss.”

He said the vast majority of individuals offering an hour of Eucharistic adoration on the first Friday of each month in Milan are Hispanic.

The parish’s Catholic Charismatic group, named in honor of San Juan Bautista, “is always at the front of the line to provide liturgical ministers or workers for parish projects.”

“Hispanics provide the only live music we have available for Liturgies,” he noted.

He lauded the parish’s two Hispanic deacons, especially their preaching and their help with preparing families to have their children baptized.

Baptisms for Hispanics are true community events, Deacon Weaver noted.

Shared blessings

Father Francis Doyle, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Marshall and St. Joseph Parish in Slater, said the changing demographics of the Marshall parish reflect trends throughout the country.

“Our Sunday Mass in Spanish is our largest Mass at St. Peter,” he noted. “And every Friday night, 60 or 70 people come to church for a prayer service.”

He said that through decades of encounter, the Anglo and Hispanic parishioners do not see each other as members of ethnic groups but as individuals.

“And because of that, they work together really well,” he said.

Father Gregory Meystrik, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Rolla, Immaculate Conception Parish in St. James and St. Anthony Parish in Rosati, said the diversity of the entire Phelps County community is an amazing blessing and gift.

“Given that it’s Hispanic Heritage Month,” he said, “I wish to express deep gratitude for the rich, diverse and faith-filled Hispanic cultures that thrive here in our community, including people originally from North America, Central America, and South America — all my brothers and sisters in Christ.”

He noted that St. Patrick School in Rolla is blessed with four faculty and staff members who are Hispanic by birth or descent.

“I enjoy this diversity, and St. Patrick School and the Rolla Newman Center are probably among the most diverse and culturally rich schools and ministries of our diocese,” he said.

Every year, at least one or two students at St. Patrick start the year not knowing any English and are fluent by the time leave for the summer.

“This is blessing, in ways too numerous to count,” he said.

Last year’s celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Patrick drew between 200 and 300 people from the Rolla area for prayer and fellowship.

Plans are already under way for this year’s celebration.

“To my Hispanic brothers and sisters, I am especially grateful for your hospitality, welcome, your rich heritage and deep faith,” said Fr. Meystrik. “I can hardly wait to see the school decorated for All Souls’ Day.”

Leadership and encounter

The U.S. Catholic bishops recently issued a report on the four-year Fifth Encuentro process for animating discipleship among Hispanic Catholics throughout the United States. (vencuentro.org)

“Encuentro” is Spanish for “encounter,” which is a major basis for the process — namely, joyfully recognizing the shared humanity and presence of God in all people, regardless of differences.

Hispanic Catholics in dioceses throughout the nation, including this diocese, took part in the work of consultation, discernment, intercessory prayer and evangelization at all stages of the process, culminating with a national gathering in Washington, D.C.

The result is a growing number of people within the Hispanic Catholic communities who are equipped to lead others to Christ and take up their rightful roles of discipleship and leadership in the Church.

Hispanic leadership has been brewing in this diocese for many years, including the ordination of nine Hispanic permanent deacons in 2019.

In addition to helping with Sunday Liturgies, these deacons work to identify appropriate avenues of outreach and to respond to other needs of Hispanic communities.

Such needs include sacramental and general catechetical formation, pastoral counseling and material assistance.

El Puente Hispanic Ministry in Jefferson City and California, founded in 1999 by Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, has grown and diversified in the services it offers, reflecting ongoing changes in the communities.

Many of the three-year pastoral plans that parishes throughout the diocese adopted in 2020 include making the parishes more hospitable to immigrants.

Language and culture remain a barrier for some Hispanic Catholics, especially adults whose children are becoming fluent in English at school.

Many of those children and grandchildren have come to occupy a more neutral place in this culture and society, identifying neither as being from their parents’ nationality nor fully American.

They are both. They are Hispanic/Latino. The Church must minister to them where they are.

The number of Hispanic parishioners who send their children to Catholic schools is disproportionately low, as Catholic education in many of their nations of origin is not affordable.

Parishes with Catholic schools in this diocese are working to enroll more Hispanic children.

The final document for the Fifth Encuentro noted that the culture of encounter is deeply interpersonal and cannot be confined to institutional boundaries.

“It must encompass the whole world and every aspect of human life and striving within it,” the document states.

“By allowing the Holy Spirit to continue to work in us, we become God’s chosen instruments to forge a culture of encounter in every place and for all time — one encounter at a time,” it concludes.