Latino Leaders' Summit Seeks National Renewal of Faith

By Benjamin Mann

--  The Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL) held its 2011 national summit in Denver from August 12 to 14, offering members a forum to discuss the revival of faith they hope to lead.

CALL President Robert Aguirre and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez at the summit. Credit: James Baca/Denver Catholic Register

“Our country needs a new evangelization,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez told conference participants on the morning of August 13. “Our country needs a renewal of its spirit! And this is our responsibility - as Latinos, as Catholics, as Americans.”

Archbishop Gomez, the organization's episcopal moderator, set the tone for Saturday's presentations with a talk on the future of the Church in the U.S. He spoke of Latino Catholics' responsibility to lead their own communities, and the whole nation, to a recognition of God and Christian values.

“Our society increasingly encourages a kind of practical atheism in which people go about their daily lives as if God does not exist,” the Los Angeles archbishop noted. “In fact, about 20 percent of our fellow citizens today claim to have no religious affiliation. And that number is even higher among young adults.”

Words for the New Evangelization
Talks presented at the summit

“This is the culture we are called to influence with our increasing presence and numbers,” he told the assembled Latino leaders. “This is the culture we are called to evangelize as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

As the U.S. shifts away from religion, it is also becoming demographically more Latino and Hispanic. Several speakers noted that these trends represent both a threat and an opportunity - with the outcome depending on whether Latino Catholics step forward to lead a revival of Catholic faith, or lose their own ties to the Church through the same secularization process.

Dr. Jonathan Reyes, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver, followed Archbishop Gomez's remarks by outlining the causes of secularization, and suggesting counter-measures. Reyes emphasized that efforts to preserve “cultural Catholicism” will not suffice, stating that Catholics instead must cultivate a bold, evangelistic spirit.

Reyes explained that the Church now faces a number of new challenges, including the dissolution of social relationships, rejection of truth claims, unprecedented mass media exposure, and attacks on all forms of authority - particularly the authority of parents. In this environment, he explained, Catholics often “drift away” from the Church.

His suggestions for maintaining the faith included limiting exposure to media, serving the poor in a face-to-face manner, and studying the Catholic faith in order to propose it to youth in an intelligent and convincing way.

Above all, he said Latino Catholics and others must work proactively, not “sit still” and “play defense” in the face of secularization.

Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was scheduled to give the keynote speech at lunch on Saturday. However, he did not deliver the speech as planned, and instead chose to make it available to conference participants in print the following day.

In the speech, he offered a reflection on the United States' religious and political history, emphasizing the danger of interpreting America's founding as a mandate for radical secularism. Faithful Latino Catholics, he said, stand to remind all Americans that faith is “always personal but never private.”

But he, like Reyes, emphasized that “the day when culture, ethnicity and habit could sustain a Catholic life is gone - and it's not coming back.” In the future, “being a Catholic will need to be a conscious choice.”

“Social data show that Latinos leave the Catholic faith at the same rate as every other ethnic group,” Archbishop Chaput warned. “So the idea that more Latinos automatically mean a more 'Catholic' America is just pious self-delusion.”

But Latinos' faith and culture can be “very great goods for our Church and for American life,” if individuals, families, and communities are willing to be formed by the teachings of the Church, and live them out.

“Being truly 'Catholic' in 2011 - whether we trace our roots to Mexico, or France, or Ireland, or Korea - means one thing: it means living a life of sacrificial witness,” said the Denver archbishop and Archbishop-designate of Philadelphia. “The privilege of that witness will fall especially on leaders.”

The afternoon continued with a panel discussion on immigration, featuring Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted as well as University of Colorado Economics Professor Dr. Brian Cadena and veteran immigration lawyer Carlos Iturregui.

In his heartfelt remarks, Bishop Olmsted noted that “being Catholic and trying to deal with the issue of immigration is a daily invitation to share in the passion of Christ” and “to be one in this great suffering this issue has caused.”

Bishop Olmsted stressed the Church's role as a moral voice in a contentious and emotional debate.

“I think our whole country could learn from the Catholic perspective,” the Arizona bishop said. “To be Catholic is to embrace, with respect, every culture, every nation, language, race, and ethnic group.”

Bishop Olmsted also explained that faith confirms an already-existing sense of humanity's oneness and universal dignity. In reality, he said, those divided by nationality are already “brothers and sisters to one another” - and the real question is “whether we'll live as who we are.”

Bishop Olmsted also spoke of how the Virgin Mary - in her significance for North American Catholics, as Our Lady of Guadalupe - can bring believers of all backgrounds together, and overcome the divisions that prevent charitable and truthful discussion.

Catholic philanthropist and investor Frank Hanna spoke at dinner on Saturday, drawing laughter as he announced that his theme was, “How Catholic Latinos can become the wealthiest people in the world.” But Hanna's concept of wealth is not simply a matter of money, having more to do with people's sense of hope and the integrity of their relationships.

“I think we need a new philosophy of wealth,” Hanna proposed. “The word comes from the Middle English word 'weal, ' meaning 'well-being.'” True wealth, he explained, is not the “economic net worth” calculated on a balance sheet.

“Wealth is a measure of our well-being, most accurately measured in the quality of the human capital, the relationships we possess, and the hope and expectations of those relationships,” he said.

And it's in this sense that Hanna believes Latino Catholics can find surpassing wealth.

“The Latino culture is not one of raw materialism - and the Anglo culture knows that about the Latino culture," Hanna observed. "The Latino culture is not one of the individual, but of the Church and the family, and that's another area where you can lead us.”

Saturday night ended on a poignant note, as Archbishop Chaput - a member of CALL's board of directors, who will leave Denver to become Archbishop of Philadelphia in September - received gifts and expressions of appreciation from the association's Denver chapter.

Archbishop Chaput was visibly moved, but joked that the “best thing” he had done as Archbishop of Denver was to ordain Archbishop Gomez in 2001. The Los Angeles archbishop, who was Archbishop Chaput's auxiliary in Denver for four years after that ordination, rose from his seat to embrace his consecrator and fellow bishop.

The following morning, Archbishop Chaput celebrated Sunday Mass for conference attendees, concelebrating with Archbishop Gomez as well as Bishop Olmsted and other clergy gathered in Denver.

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