Like the three services celebrated earlier in the morning and the four that will follow into the afternoon, the 10:45 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in the Pico-Union district of downtown Los Angeles is crammed to the rafters, even though the church holds nearly 1,000 parishioners. When I spoke on a recent Sunday to Msgr. Jarlath Cunnane, or Father Jay, as he is known by his congregation, he said: “If we had the space, I think another thousand people might well come to each Sunday Mass. We’re full, bursting at the seams, and so are most churches in the archdiocese.”
In many ways, this is the best of times to be a Catholic in Los Angeles. “In the 1980s, we were conscious of dioceses closing churches all over the Eastern United States,” Cunnane told me. We were sitting in his office in a low-slung new building across the street from the church, where the administrative work of the parish is done. “Our problem is the reverse: were it not for the shortage of priests, we would be expanding our ministry.”
This news comes as something of a surprise, given the fact that the last four decades have been such a catastrophe for American Catholicism. The statistics speak for themselves: In 1965, there were 49,000 seminarians; in 2002, there were 4,700. In 1965, there were 1,556 Catholic high schools; in 2002, there were 786. Mass attendance dropped from 74 percent of self-identified Catholics in 1958 to 25 percent in 2000. The number of priests has not fallen quite as drastically — 58,000 in 1965; 45,000 in 2002 — but the median age for priests today is 56, and 16 percent of them are from foreign countries.
And yet, to hear Cunnane tell it, things are different in Los Angeles. Indeed, what he was describing sounded like a throwback to the glory years of American Catholic devotion — the baby-boom era, when the native-born children and grandchildren of Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants filled an ever-expanding number of Catholic churches, often in places where there had been no Catholic diocese before, and they clamored for more priests to say Mass, hear confession, preside over baptisms and petition for more parochial schools.
In those days, young American Catholic males answered this call in steadily increasing numbers. To be a priest was to play a central role in the life of much of both urban and suburban America, spiritually and also in the everyday concerns of parishioners. The priestly hierarchy was overwhelmingly Irish then, and it remains so today. But that is where all similarity to the church of the 1960s ends. For if the priests are cut from much the same ethnic cloth as they were a generation ago, their parishioners are not: out of the eight Masses celebrated at St. Thomas every Sunday, seven are in Spanish, as are all three of the Masses on Saturday and two out of the three daily Masses. Parish business is routinely done bilingually, and priests like Cunnane probably spend more of their working lives speaking Spanish than they do English. New seminarians in the archdiocese of Los Angeles are required to be able to say Mass in Spanish (or another language of recent Catholic immigrants, like Tagalog or Vietnamese) as well as in English.
St. Thomas is in inner-city Los Angeles, but there is nothing anomalous about what takes place there. Throughout Southern California, from the San Gabriel Valley to downtown Los Angeles and from Orange County to East L.A., almost every parish church is in the same position, or at least inclining that way. As Fernando Guerra, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, has said, churches in Los Angeles now fall into two categories: they “are either Latino or in the process of becoming Latino.” Although the trend is not as extreme in other parts of the country, it is being reproduced almost everywhere in Catholic America to one degree or another. Take, for example, another St. Thomas the Apostle Church — the one in Smyrna, Ga. There, Masses in English still predominate during the week, but on Sundays there are four English services and three Spanish ones, despite the fact that large-scale Hispanic immigration to the state is a very recent phenomenon.
Nationally, Hispanics account for 39 percent of the Catholic population, or something over 25 million of the nation’s 65 million Roman Catholics; since 1960, they have accounted for 71 percent of new Catholics in the United States. The vast increase, both proportionally and in absolute numbers, is mostly because of the surge in immigration from Latin America, above all from Mexico, that has taken place over the course of the past three decades. Today, more than 40 percent of the Hispanics residing in the United States, legally and illegally, are foreign-born, and the fate of the American Catholic Church has become inextricably intertwined with the fate of these immigrants and their descendants. [...Snip] New York Times