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In U.S., Hispanics bring Catholicism to its feet

The new waves of Hispanic immigrants have brought charismatic worship to the relatively solemn Masses of the U.S. Catholic Church.
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For a glimpse into the future of the Roman Catholic Church in America, peek inside St. Benedict's in Queens on a Sunday after the Matsons, Mays and Cassidys have all gone home and Joan Overton has shut down the pipe organ following the sparsely attended 8:30 a.m. Mass. That's when the pews fill up with the Durans, Lopezes and Fernandezes and the spiritual thermometer turns up a notch.

"Everyone on their feet!" cried Gladys Cardenas, a stout and fiery Puerto Rican, as a band struck up behind her. "Come on," she shouted in Spanish. "Get ready to celebrate God!"

On cue, Monsignor John O'Brien emerged in brilliant white robes for the 10 a.m. charismatic Mass -- the most popular in a parish where attendance has declined for every other Sunday service. As the band played a hymn tinged with a merengue beat, Aurora Duran, an 82-year-old Dominican, fell to her knees in throaty "hallelujahs." A man in the front row lifted his hands toward the heavens and began to speak in tongues. Shouts of "Glory!" and "Christ lives!" echoed through the church.

Such scenes were once rarely witnessed in any language inside U.S. Catholic churches, long known for relatively solemn celebrations that eschew the more vivacious religious devotion of evangelical Protestantism. But as waves of Latin American immigrants alter the fabric of life in much of the United States, they are leaving one of their biggest imprints on the Roman Catholic Church.

Their arrival is reinvigorating the U.S. Catholic Church's charismatic movement, which had been in decline since peaking in the 1980s. In recent decades, the movement -- a type of worship that includes faith healing and prophesying -- has swept across Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where Catholic leaders are using rock-star priests and beachfront Masses to stem the defections of their flock to born-again Christian faiths.

Pragmatic response
American Catholic leaders say the church here has not made a conscious effort to promote charismatic practices. Rather, it has embraced them as a pragmatic response to the growing number of Hispanic Catholics. With one in five Hispanics having left the church over the past 25 years -- many of them to Pentecostal churches -- the newly energized movement could be a saving grace.

"We're responding to a genuine movement of the spirit," said Bishop Robert J. Carlson, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "Especially over the past five years, the charismatic movement is where our growth has been."

In the Archdiocese of Washington, about 5,000 Hispanic Catholics worship regularly at charismatic services at 16 parishes, twice as many as offered such services four years ago. Because many new immigrants work on weekends, the archdiocese also encourages small charismatic prayer groups in private homes.

Rather than representing a shift in the articles of faith, analysts say, charismatic Catholicism is transforming the nature of devotion and putting new emphasis on "personal experiences" with God. The Catholic Church has traditionally used its clergy as the conduits of divine interpretation, but increasingly, charismatic Catholics are being energized by lay ministers in small prayer groups and are employing methods such as speaking in tongues as independent and direct spiritual channels.

More effervescent styles of devotion, analysts say, are also a reflection of the popular custom of religious feast days as well as the ancient influences of indigenous and African spirituality in Latin American cultures.

Worship growing ‘ more lively, more intense’
"Immigration is changing the nature of the American Catholic, making worship more lively, more intense," said Monsignor Joseph Malagreca, moderator of the National Hispanic Committee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. "We are accommodating the desire for a deeper and more personal relationship with God."

Hispanics make up a third of all U.S. Catholics, and they are projected to constitute almost half within 25 years. A landmark study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as charismatic.

Though the Catholic Church does not keep official statistics on its charismatic flock, church leaders and academics say the study, considered alongside trends in the Hispanic population, suggests that the number of Catholics embracing at least some aspects of charismatic devotion has almost doubled over the past 20 years to more than 10 million adults.

Without doubt, their influence is rippling across the church, with the strongest impact felt at the thousands of Catholic Masses said in Spanish from coast to coast. While those Masses began decades ago as celebrations fairly similar in tone and style to their English-language counterparts, many have grown increasingly spirited, incorporating aspects of charismatic celebration.

The sprawling diocese that includes Brooklyn and Queens -- in which the percentage of Hispanic parishioners is already over 55 percent -- offers a window into the future of the church as immigrant populations rapidly grow in other urban and suburban areas of the United States. At St. Benedict Joseph Labre, in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, for instance, sharp differences now divide the 10 a.m. charismatic Mass and the more traditional -- and less attended -- Spanish Mass said at 1 p.m.

A significant number of active charismatic and younger Catholics celebrate at the morning Mass, spontaneously shouting out praise, lifting their hands skyward and clapping to the rhythm of moving hymns played on electric guitars and synthesizers. By comparison, the more traditional Spanish Mass held later is, like St. Benedict's English-language Masses, more tranquil, with hymns sung to serene pipe organ music and no demonstrative devotion.

As Hispanic immigrants have become the majority of parishioners at St. Benedict's, more emphasis is also being placed on the mystical rites of the church. St. Benedict's has in recent years resurrected once-dormant practices such as Monday adorations of the Eucharist, encased in a large gilded vessel called a monstrance, as well as "healing Masses," in which priests lay hands on the faithful for cures and inspiration. Across the diocese, leaders have noted increases in demand for healing prayers, house blessings and even exorcisms.

Church leaders and observers note that the impact on traditional English-language Masses has been far more limited -- only one in 10 non-Hispanic Catholics embraces charismatic practices, compared with one in two Hispanics, according to Pew. But their influence is gradually growing with the ascendance of bilingual charismatics as deacons and church music directors. In many parishes, for instance, Hispanic charismatic bands are now playing at English-language or bilingual Easter celebrations and Christmas Masses, the two biggest draws for Roman Catholics each year.

Some may be uneasy with shift
To be sure, not everyone in the church -- from the leaders to the flock -- is comfortable with that shift. Even at the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Benedict's, many parishioners in the back remained solemn as charismatics in the front pews expressed their faith with great animation. Some charismatic practices remain controversial, including a devotion known as the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." The ritual, which varies greatly among charismatic groups, often starts with weeks of reviewing the gospel and culminates in a prayer to "release" the Holy Spirit from inside the soul. At that point, some participants express extreme joy and might begin to speak in tongues.

No water is used -- avoiding the appearance of mimicking the sacrament of baptism, which Catholics usually perform for infants to cleanse original sin. The baptisms of the Holy Spirit are similar to the baptisms of reborn Christian faiths, which makes some Catholics uneasy.

"We know there are some people in the church who don't fully trust it, who feel that this is a type of worship that cannot be controlled," Malagreca said. "But not embracing this would mean ignoring the wishes of Catholics, and that we cannot do."

Only a small percentage of charismatics -- perhaps as many as 500,000 -- belong to the formal organizations sponsored nationally by the Catholic Church. Instead, far more have joined informal, often fervent prayer groups at their local parishes.

One such group met two Sundays ago at St. Benedict's, where about 100 Hispanic parishioners joined together behind the stained-glass windows of the school gymnasium. Over the course of four hours, individual lay preachers -- called "animators" -- took turns rousing the crowd with evangelist-style sermons in Spanish.

Sonia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican, spun in the aisles as she spoke in tongues. The crowd began frantically waving white napkins in the air to symbolically purify themselves while a preacher began calling down the Holy Spirit. Moments later, one young woman began spasmodically dancing as if in a trance while group leaders rushed to her side with outstretched hands. She finally collapsed into her chair amid a chorus of "hallelujahs" from the congregation.

For some, the charismatic prayer service offered a rare chance to unload their burdens and experiences in the company of compassionate ears. Juana Jaco, a 47-year-old Salvadoran maid, took the microphone to give one of many "testimonies" of personal experiences with God.

"Until last year, I thought I was worthless; my husband beat me, and I hated myself," said Jaco, who came to the service alone. In tears, she continued: "But then my uncle came to me. He was sick and needed a kidney. I didn't think twice; I offered him mine. After the operation, we began to pray together, and we both felt God come down and touch us both."

Leoba Charros, a timid 28-year-old Mexican who moved to the United States two years ago with her husband, a handyman, described the prayer service as a comforting sanctuary and a reminder of her faraway country.

"When I began coming here, I felt relief, as if I were back home," she said. "Here, I can communicate with God in the only way I know how."

Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.