Spanish-speaking Catholics participate in a Good Friday devotion at St. Jude Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood.
In the midst of many changes that the Catholic Church is undergoing at the present time, one is the adaptation of the church to the presence of many Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from different countries.
In the past, the Catholic church responded to immigration by establishing “national parishes” that served the immigrants from a particular country. Parishes were referred to as the “Italian Parish,” or the “Polish Parish,” or the “Irish Parish.” Usually, the language of the country of origin was used throughout the parish for homilies, religious education and even in all the subjects taught in the Catholic school of that parish.
The latest wave of immigration has created a new challenge for the Catholic Church. Immigrants are no longer clustering in one section of our cities. Instead, they are finding homes throughout the cities, in rural settings (especially trailer parks) and, occasionally, in suburban communities.
In addition to the uneven distribution of the new immigrants, a second big difference between the immigrants of the past and those of the present day is that they do not attend the Catholic schools. This has occurred for several reasons, including the fact that the schools no longer offer classes in the language of the original country and the tuition for the schools (which were once free to the Catholic populace) is beyond their reach.
Today the Diocese of Camden is trying to welcome the immigrant Catholics by offering liturgies, religious education and other ministries in the language of the sending countries.
In several parishes, there are monthly Masses for the Filipino Community, the Indian Catholics who celebrate the Syro-Malabar Rite of the Catholic church, and the Korean Community.
A different reality exists for the Spanish-speaking. First, their numbers are very large, second, they are widely dispersed throughout the diocese and thirdly, they come from many countries.
One approach now being attempted by the Diocese of Camden is to assign one priest to serve the Latino peoples in several parishes. This is happening in several places in the diocese, including St. Joseph Parish in Somers Point and St. Francis Cabrini, Ocean City, who share the cost of a Spanish-speaking priest for the two parishes. Similar arrangements exist in other parishes.
Along the Black Horse Pike, a different situation exists. There one parish at the northern end of the Pike, where it meets Route 130, has been celebrating the Sunday Mass in Spanish for 11 years. Another parish about 10 miles south, St. Charles Borromeo in Sicklerville, has celebrated an annual Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12) every year since 2005. Most of the people who attended that Mass, however, came from Williamstown, the Parish of Our Lady of Peace.
In between these two sites, concentrations of Latinos exist in Blackwood, Runnemede and Bellmawr. Smaller numbers of Latinos live in Gloucester, Mt. Ephraim, Turnersville and Brooklawn.
In order to welcome these Catholics to the diocese and to serve them, a priest was assigned to minister to all of the Spanish-speaking people in 10 parishes along the Black Horse Pike and down Route 130 South.
Currently Father Kenneth Hallahan is assigned to this ministry. He celebrates the liturgy on Saturday evening at St. Maurice Church (St. Joachim Parish) in Brooklawn and Sunday mornings in St. Joan of Arc Church (St. Josephine Bakhita Parish, Camden) and St. Jude Church (Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood).
One of the salient characteristics of the Spanish ministry is the celebration of dimensions of the faith that are specific to the local communities. Each Latin American country has Mary as a patroness. Each country, though, honors Mary under a different title.
Thus, in St. Josephine Bakhita Parish (St. Joan of Arc Church), the people celebrate the feasts of Our Lady of Divine Providence (Puerto Rico), Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (Cuba), the “Purisima” or the Immaculate Conception (Nicaragua), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico) and “Alta Gracia” or Our Lady of Divine Grace (Dominican Republic).
Each feast day has its own story and its own symbols. For example, the symbol for “Alta Gracia” is the orange tree. A statue of Mary, with Joseph in the background and the baby Jesus in the foreground, is surrounded by orange trees to recall the site of the appearance, or the display of the painting of the Holy Family, in an orange grove in the Dominican Republic.
The Mexicans, too, bring their own customs of celebrating the faith. For example, on the feast of the Epiphany, they bake a special cake called the “Rosca del los Reyes” (the “spiral of the kings”). The cake contains a tiny plastic statue of the Infant Jesus. Whoever gets the baby Jesus in their piece of cake gets special notice — either good luck or the obligation to make the cake the following year!
On Feb. 2 (or the closest Sunday), the feast of the Presentation, or Candelmas Day (which used to conclude the Christmas season for all Catholics), the Mexicans bring statues of the Infant Jesus to the church to be blessed. Like many European Catholics who have a special devotion to the Infant of Prague, the Mexicans have a special devotion to the Infant Jesus of the Presentation.
The church of the Diocese of Camden is enriched by the many customs, foods and music brought by today’s immigrants, said Father Hallahan. By supporting the ministry to the Latinos along the Black Horse Pike and Route 130, the 10 parishes are adapting to a new situation, but still fulfilling the traditional Catholic value of welcoming the immigrants and encouraging them to maintain both their faith and their cultures, he said.