ORLANDO | Parishes from all over the diocese coordinated 23 buses to help parishioners participate in the Hispanic Heritage Mass celebrated by Bishop John Noonan at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, Orlando. More than 2,300 people came from throughout the diocese to celebrate Hispanic heritage in this Year of Mercy—the largest attendance since its inception.
Bishop Noonan shared his excitement saying, “The pews were packed and the people were singing their hearts out. It was full beyond capacity. They came to celebrate their faith in God and their love for their Hispanic heritage.”
The Mass was planned with the intent to celebrate the faith of the Hispanic community, which Bishop Noonan said, “… is an essential part of their family, culture and lives.”
Father José Muñoz, pastor of St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Orlando, and several other priests were instrumental in planning the Mass, a six month process. In his homily, Father Muñoz touched upon the issue of immigrants feeling displaced. “When they are coming from other countries,” he said, “they feel like they are away from home. When they go to church, they feel close to their relatives. They make of the Church their own house.”
Father Muñoz pointed out that this is one of the characteristics that make this community unique. “In the church they can see brothers and sisters. They can share their suffering, their worries.”
He also noted their vibrant spirit. “The Hispanic community also brings joy, happiness, and the enthusiasm that they have to profess and practice their faith, to celebrate the Mass.”
This enthusiasm was reflected in the choir, courtesy of Holy Redeemer Parish in Kissimmee. Bishop Noonan called it, “One of the most wonderful ways they express their faith.”
Holy Redeemer parishioner and choir member Billy, age 15, said this was his experience. He came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was nine years old. He became a member of the Spanish choir and it helped integrate him into a community of faith. But the choir members did more than that. “The Spanish choir welcomed me and they helped me with anything I needed, with school and getting used to a different lifestyle. I am still very close friends with all of them. They have become family now,” he said.
He continued, “We can be from different nationalities and parts of the country, but that moment when we get together to celebrate our heritage with the Lord is very special.”
Merging communities across language and cultural barriers can be a daunting task. Hispanic communities are flourishing throughout the United States and we are seeing local churches becoming more Latino.
A recent study by Pew Research Center showed that youth is a defining characteristic of the nation’s Hispanic population. Nearly three-quarters of U.S.-born Hispanics are millennials or younger.
In the last three years, the number of Hispanic students in Elsie Torres’ classes has gone from 50% to 80%. As faith formation coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade at Holy Cross Parish in Orlando, she says it is important to reach out and teach the faith, especially to this younger demographic—one that is practicing their faith less and less, whether Hispanic or Anglo.
Father Jorge Torres, Diocese of Orlando director of vocations noted, “This matters because Jesus asked us to go and evangelize the nations. In this case, this group of nations is coming to us. Jesus asked us to reach out to them and promote love and welcome them into the Church.” He added, “The gospel has always moved in between cultures.”
To do this, Elsie is using a bilingual book, prints everything in both languages and uses technology, such as Remind 101, to improve attendance. She also encourages parents to commit to participating in a Mass in English at least once a week to help their youth connect.
With 6,000 registered families, of which almost 70% are Hispanic, St. Isaac Jogues is a model for uniting communities. “Every activity that we do in Spanish, we do in English,” said Father Muñoz. “We never had a problem with the language. We have both Spanish and English ministries. But they come together to help one another.” He said this integrates the cultures for the common good.
Father Muñoz explained, “Our faith is growing. When we put the communities together, the only thing we have in common is our faith and our love for Jesus.” He added, “When we come together with our different backgrounds, it enriches our faith and communities.”