November 09, 2018
How can Catholic schools better serve the growing numbers of Hispanic and Latin American Catholics? That was the question at the heart of a recent town hall on Latinos and Catholic education, which was co-hosted by The Catholic University of America and America Media on Oct. 30.

The discussion, which took place in Father O’Connell Hall’s Heritage Hall, featured a diverse selection of panelists, including Bishop Oscar Cantú, coadjutor Bishop of San Jose, Calif.; Veronica Alonzo, associate superintendent of Dallas Catholic Schools; Thomas Burnford, president of the National Catholic Educational Association; and Monsignor Michael Clay, director of Pastoral Ministry Programs in Catholic University’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

The event was moderated by Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, who shared statistics about the changing demographics of Hispanics in the Church. Today, 43 percent of all Catholics in the United States are Hispanic. And while more than 60 percent of Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic, they make up only 17 percent of the Catholic school population.

“The present and the future of Catholicism in the United States of America will be defined by the Hispanic presence,” Ospino said. “One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is what kind of future do we want to have for Catholicism? How are we forming these young women and men who will be the next generation of priests, sisters, lay leaders, parents, and all those people who will bring the Catholic faith into the public square? What are we doing today?”

During his comments, Bishop Cantú explained how his years of Catholic schooling shaped his life. He also shared a concern that Catholic education is becoming “a privilege for the privileged” because of tuition costs that are prohibitive for low-income families.

While providing scholarships for low-income families is necessary, he does not think that plan will work as a long-term solution and instead suggested that educators work with the government to establish viable voucher or tax credit programs supporting Catholic schools.

“We’ve got to do it as a matter of justice, as a matter of communion of the Church,” he said.

Bishop Cantú also described a need for Catholic schools that are truly aligned with the Catholic faith.

“We have to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ whether students are Catholic or not, to show them and teach them the marvels of the Catholic worldview,” he said. “If we’re not doing that right, then we have no business being open.”

Alonzo said she sees Catholic schools as an important tool for teaching students how to live out their values and “see the humanness in others.”

In order to improve the system, she said Hispanic and Latin American Catholics need to have “a seat at the table” as teachers, principals, and school superintendents. She also said that schools need to explore different teaching models, including bilingual or Cristo Rey work-study programs, to provide greater educational options for families.

“If we truly want to evangelize, we have to invest in our future,” she said, adding that schools can be valuable tools for faith formation in young people. “What better way can we inform these citizens to vote in a way that supports our Catholic values and virtues?”

Monsignor Clay, who oversees formation for seminarians at Catholic University, said he has worked in Hispanic ministry for more than 20 years as part of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. A “lifelong learner of the graces and gifts the Latin American community brings to the Church,” he shared a story from 1995 when his parishioners asked for a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be installed within the Church.

“Within three months of them putting her in the church, the community went from 50 people worshipping in Spanish at Mass on Sundays to 350 people,” Monsignor Clay said. “When I asked later what had happened, I’ll never forget the response. ‘If she’s welcomed in the church, we know we’re welcomed in the church.’”

Since those days, Monsignor Clay said he has always tried to promote integration and welcoming atmospheres for Hispanic Catholics. As he works with seminarians, he said he tries to prepare them to approach their work with empathy and cultural awareness for Hispanic Catholics.

During his introductory remarks at the event, University President John Garvey spoke of the responsibility he feels the University has to educate and serve Hispanic and Latin American students, as well as the many gifts the Hispanic population has shared with the rest of the Church.

Pointing toward the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Garvey reflected on the 2015 Mass at the University in which Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero Serra, a Spanish missionary who helped to bring the Catholic faith to the Americas hundreds of years before the Founding Fathers. Garvey also spoke about Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who addressed the University community during the 2018 Commencement Ceremony.

“When The Catholic University of America looks at the Church in America, she sees remarkable stories of saints standing on our doorstep,” Garvey said. “Those stories enrich our education about what it means to be Catholic, and make the American Catholic Church better in immeasurable ways.”

This discussion was part of a series of town hall events organized by America Media to discuss the future growth and sustainability of the Catholic Church in the United States, with a particular focus on Hispanic Catholics. For more information, visit