Priest emphasizes role of Hispanics in church

By Catholic New World
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Father Marco Mercado loved being a pastor. At Good Shepherd Parish in Little Village, he loved knowing his people, celebrating with them in their joy and consoling them in their sorrow. He loved getting to the teens and helping them navigate in the space between childhood and adulthood, between their Mexican roots and their American homes.

Now director of the Office for Hispanic Ministry, Mercado wants to be a bridge between the archdiocese and parishes with Hispanic Catholics, as the archdiocese helps to bring Spanishand English-speaking Catholics together in one church.

Mercado, 43, grew up in Morelia, Mexico, and attended seminary in that country before coming to Casa Jesus and then University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained in 1998.

He spoke of the changing role of Hispanic ministry with staff writer Michelle Martin.

Catholic New World: Given that more than 40 percent of the Catholics in the archdiocese are Hispanic, what is Hispanic ministry? What does that term mean?

Father Marco Mercado: Right now 42 or 44 percent of the archdiocese is Hispanic. The archdiocese found itself in a position where it realized it wasn’t ready to receive this huge number of immigrants from Latin America — not just immigrants but those in the second and third generation. The difference from other groups of immigrants is that with technology, communication, because we are so close to Mexico, things like language and culture didn’t change.

It has not been like other groups that assimilated in the huge American culture, the melting pot as they used to say. With Hispanics it is different because even second and third generations, even though most are totally bilingual and some only speak English, they are still asking for the cultural traditional way of living their faith.

This has been a huge challenge because we have to respond to that need and to that demand. We didn’t have enough clergy.

We didn’t have enough resources. Downtown [at the pastoral center], we didn’t have enough bilingual people and the staff was mostly just Englishspeaking.

CNW: How has your office met that challenge?

Mercado: Little by little, developing a little more leadership. The first idea was to bring priests from Latin America, but that didn’t work. It’s very different being a Mexican in Mexico or a Colombian in Colombia than to be a Latino in America. This office has been kind of the bridge to help the archdiocese to provide the resources to meet the demands of the community.

I see my position as the director to help all the agencies that we have in the archdiocese. Right now almost every agency, thank God, has people to work with the Hispanic community. Right now what we need is more collaboration and teamwork in order to be more effective.

I also help with our clergy that is very, very diverse, not only in nationalities, but we have international priests who have come and are incardinated. We have many who are in the process of being incardinated. We have some who are just having an experience for three or five years in Chicago.

We have the archdiocesan guys, more than 50 Hispanic priests ordained by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Ninety percent of them were born not in the United States.

CNW: How can we better integrate the Hispanic and Anglo Catholic communities?

Mercado: We don’t want to create parallel churches. We have really to be part of one church and one diocese. This has been the message of this office. The goal for my job is one day this office will disappear. It will be the responsibility of the whole archdiocese.

We need education on both parts. I want the Hispanic community to learn how to be Catholic in the United States. I want the second and third generations to learn how to be American Catholics, but still connected to their culture, and especially their language.

I want them to know how to support the church. The Hispanic way is through special events, when there is a baptism or a quinceanera, they request a donation, and the people will usually give it. There is very small emphasis placed on the collection at Mass.

In the U.S., the parish has been the center of the life of faith of the community. In Latin America, where the community is Catholic, the parish is place where you receive services. The priest has the say; there are not councils or committees of the laity. We haven’t really been able to accomplish a sense of ownership.

The American church can get from Hispanics a return to popular piety — traditional Catholicism, processions and novenas, that were lost here, and an emphasis on the value of community and family.

CNW: What is your biggest concern?

Mercado: Youth ministry is the biggest challenge. We are losing them big time. We don’t have the programs for them. We have 131 parishes that have Mass in Spanish, and one with a full-time youth ministry coordinator. Sixty percent of the Hispanics in the archdiocese are under 24.

For us, we say youth ministry is ages 16-35. But right now, we are planning on targeting teens ages 13-17 and also the young adults 18-25. To do that, we work with three agencies: catechesis, for the teens, then our office has young adult ministry, and also the archdiocese young adult office. We are trying to coordinate ourselves.

My main concern is the teenagers. Seventy percent speak Spanish at home and English everywhere else. They have a bilingual and bicultural identity. They say they don’t feel like white guys, but they aren’t 100 percent Mexican either.

They want to be listened to. They need help finding their identity.