Priests told ethnic ministry requires support and compassion

CHARLESTON — Priests from around the diocese met at the Mills House for the annual Convocation of Priests Jan. 17 -19.

The focus of this year’s event was ethnic ministries. The guest speakers were Father Mario Vizcaino, SchP, director of the Southeast Regional Office for Hispanic Ministry; Elaine Lacy, Ph.D., director of the Research Initiatives of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina; and Father Anthony Clark, SVD, director of the Office of Multicultural Ministries for the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn.

Cuban-born Father Vizcaino ministers to the Hispanic populations in nine states, including South Carolina. His talk was “Understanding the Hispanics in Our Midst.”

“Unlike Asian and African immigrants, 75 percent of Hispanics are Catholic, and we must understand the different principles that must lead our ministry as priests,” he told the priests. “We must provide compassion, support and accompaniment.”

Father Vizcaino reminded the priests that the world belongs to all persons, yet many Americans have a “go back where you came from” mentality that is anti-Christian at its core.

“The attitude is often ‘what belongs to my kinship is good, but what belongs to your kinship is bad,’” he said. “Culture is the identity of a person and must be preserved.”

He explained some of the differences in the Hispanic culture, primarily within their culture of worship.

“Their faith is not apologetic, not structural, and it is not liturgical,” he said. “In some of the more rural areas there is no priest available, but the devotion is present.”

He explained that the devotion includes altars, novenas and rosaries.

A mother is central in the family, Father Vizcaino said, and “the Blessed Mother is a very important part of their core. The church for them is more of a family than it is an institution, and friendship is very important.”

He said that Hispanics are a very affectionate people who don’t use the term “God the Father” but rather refer to God in more loving, familiar terms. “They rely on things such as affection, intuition, contemplation and symbolism,” he said.

He then offered ways in which priests could welcome Hispanics into their parishes.

“It is the attitude of welcome that is most important,” Father Vizcaino said. “It provides an opportunity for evangelizing in the parish.”

He said that little things such as making space in the schedule, bulletin and church marquee for the Latino community will make them feel accepted. He also suggested that Hispanics should be received on parish councils and have a part in the decision-making process.

“This is what integration means,” he said. “Good music and good readers are also important aspects of integration.”

He said that it wasn’t even necessary for the priest to speak the Spanish language.

“The language of love is more important than the physical language,” he said. “We must understand what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. We are called upon as Christians to accept a group that is Catholic not only by religion but by culture.”

During her talk, Lacy provided statistical analysis of the Hispanic presence. She estimated that there are more than 300,000 Latinos in the Diocese of Charleston alone, making the church’s responsibility overwhelming.

Father Clark spoke about the Memphis diocese’s effort to reinvigorate its inner-city schools, which had dwindled with urban sprawl. The diocese developed a $44 million trust that went solely to these schools. Major corporations and individual donors gave generously, knowing that the money was solely for education, and that it would educate children who would later go to work and become a part of that city’s economy. He told the audience that 94 percent of the students in those schools were not Catholic, but many of the students wanted to participate in the church.

“We are evangelizing by instilling in them good Christian values,” he said. “We are reaching out to the unchurched.”

The priest said that the goal was to educate the children first and over time, as the church builds trust. The purpose of his talk, he told The Miscellany, was to inspire the priests.

“I want the priests not to be discouraged in their ministry,” he said. “We have tremendous obstacles but God always makes a way.”

Father J. Scott Newman, director of continuing education for priests, organized the event around the topic suggested by Bishop Robert J. Baker. In an interview following the event, Father Newman said that he hoped that his brothers in Christ would take away the realization that the Catholic Church in South Carolina is a very complex mix of race, ethnicities and culture.

“We are responsible as a presbyterate for the pastoral care of all,” he said.