LOS ANGELES -- The Rev. Juan Romero still remembers how, as a young priest 30 years ago, he was forbidden to give a Spanish homily to his Latino immigrant parishioners in East Los Angeles -- even if they spoke nothing else.
"The idea was let them learn English," recalled Romero, now the priest at St. Clement Parish church in Santa Monica. "For some pastors, it was more important to teach English than to preach the gospel. We've come a long way, baby, since then."
Today, 80 percent of Romero's parishioners on the west side of Los Angeles are immigrants or their children. Most of his Masses are in Spanish, and life at his church has a decidedly immigrant heartbeat. And nowadays, Spanish proficiency is a requirement for graduation from Catholic seminaries in Los Angeles, Orange and several other California counties.
A similar demographic transformation is taking place in other U.S. immigrant hubs. Like the Irish, Poles, Italians and Germans before them, Latin Americans are reshaping the 61-million-member U.S. Catholic Church. At least 70 percent of the about 30 million Latinos in the United States are Roman Catholic, said Ron Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in Washington. One-fifth of America's 20,000 U.S. parishes offer Spanish services, he said.
"This migration will transform the church by the next century into a predominantly Hispanic American institution, just as today it is predominantly Irish American," said the Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, a professor at Loyola Marymount on the west side of Los Angeles who wrote an authoritative history of U.S. Latino Catholicism, "The Second Wave."
In Los Angeles, dramatic change has already occurred, though estimates of the Latino church presence vary widely.
Louis Velasquez, director of the Los Angeles archdiocese Office of Hispanic Ministry, estimates that about 70 percent of the more than 4 million Catholics in the three-county Los Angeles archdiocese -- America's largest -- are Latinos. He says that makes it one of the largest Hispanic Catholic archdioceses in the hemisphere.
More conservative estimates range between 50 percent and 60 percent, said the Rev. Gregory Coiro, archdiocese spokesman. The presence of so many illegal immigrants in the region may contribute to an undercount of as many as 1 million Latino parishioners, he said.
Coiro said the shift, fueled by the growth of the Latino community, is a microcosm of the immigration trends that are redrawing the face of Southern California. Other emerging Catholic groups are Pacific Islanders, particularly Filipinos, and Asians, especially Koreans, Coiro said.
"The word Catholic means universal and we are one of the most -- if not the most -- diverse archdioceses in the world," Coiro said.
Absorbing the immigrants has meant assuming assimilation and social service duties -- regardless of recipients' immigration status -- at a time that Californians have voted to restrict immigrant access to government services.
"Once they're here, how they got here is irrelevant to us," Coiro said. "These are human beings with dignity and needs. The church has to stand with the immigrants regardless of the reasons they came or the ways they found themselves here."
Front-line parishes provide programs such as day care, food distribution, employment counseling, legal advocacy, help with immigration paperwork and health care. Youth programs try to steer immigrant teen-agers away from the urban siren call of gangs and drugs and the risk of teen pregnancy.
"We're always working on helping the people assimilate," said the Rev. Dennis O'Neil, the parish priest of St. Thomas the Apostle in the Los Angeles area, where immigrants take classes in English, parenting, adult literacy and citizenship.
Some churches run shelters for new immigrants. At one downtown church, after the final Mass, 60 immigrant men lay down on pews and mats. They may stay for as long as four months while they find jobs and apartments.
"If it weren't for the church, my struggle here would be much more difficult," said Rogelio Castro Ramos, 32, a Mexican who slipped into Arizona illegally a few weeks ago and sleeps at the church while working as a day laborer.
At a time when Catholicism must compete with proselytizing Protestant sects for Latino believers, church leaders are increasingly accommodating of the Mexicans and Central Americans who bring their own variants of the faith to southern California. But in parishes where newcomers eclipse U.S.-born whites or Latinos, there are often tensions, in some cases even defections, priests say.
In most parishes shared by Latino immigrants and whites, "there are basically two churches that share the same building but are not a community," said John Coleman, a religious sociologist at Loyola Marymount.
But some parishioners applaud the arrival of Latino immigrants who, like the Irish and Polish before them, are more regular churchgoers than assimilated American Catholics.
"When I'm at a Spanish Mass, I find it very moving," said Regina Bolan, 45, a white parishioner at St. Clement who attended its now defunct parochial school at a time when the church's small congregation was predominantly white. Now, the original white English-speakers have been overtaken by a lively majority of Spanish-speaking newcomers.
"Religion is very important to them," she said. "Their fervor extends itself over and above the Mass. The world is always changing, and you have to go with it, or it leaves you behind."
Sometimes it is the priests who find it hard to navigate the changing map. Church contributions always drop, at least temporarily, when poor immigrants arrive en masse, Velasquez said. Some priests resist taking steps, like adding a Hispanic Ministry office, to accommodate the newcomers, he said.
"It's huge numbers, and it's happened very swiftly. That's the difficulty," he said.
The first parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East Los Angeles came as Mexican refugees in the 1920s, bringing a militant, persecuted church. Mexico's revolutionary leaders, viewing the clergy as allies of exploitative landowners, exiled many, and bloodshed erupted in the so-called Cristero War.
But years passed, and younger generations lost their Spanish and moved to more upscale enclaves, like Montebello. They attended other churches, or like many U.S. Catholics, stopped going to church regularly, said the Rev. Robert Juarez, Our Lady of Guadalupe's pastor.
Then came the Mexican immigrant boom. The newcomers packed pews, youth groups and catechism classes. They introduced vivid new rituals and invested old ones with pageantry and emotion.
The December feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe became a two-day passion play with Aztec dancers and a dramatization of the day the 16th century Mexican peasant Coahtlatoatzin -- Christianized as "Juan Diego" -- sighted the Virgin at a hilltop shrine for an Aztec fertility goddess. Like the goddess, the Virgin is called Tonantzin -- "our mother" -- and is cited as the crucial bridge between Mexico's pre-Colombian and Catholic worlds.
Christmas at the parish has become a fervent re-enactment of the "posadas" -- Mary and Joseph's search for shelter -- with parishioners taking turns hosting statues of the Nativity for eight nights of festive open houses. At Lent, they recreate the stations of the Cross and Christ's agony in the streets outside the church.
Other differences are more subtle but still widely felt.
The American-born Latinos donate more money to the church, but the Virgin of Guadalupe's newcomers need more help. A nurse examines immigrants who fear a trip to the emergency room will mean deportation. The neediest parish families receive food distributions weekly.
Immigrants listen intently in meetings on their children's religious development. American parents often "just watch the clock," said Giovanni Perez, the religious education director. "It's like, let's get it over with."
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And while Spanish services thrived, English-language services became so empty "you could shoot a cannonball through the pews and not hit anyone," Juarez said.
Today, 60 percent of his flock -- mostly Mexicans -- speak Spanish only, and Sunday is the only day that English Mass is offered. "We know this has caused hard feelings, but how can you keep preaching to thin air?" Juarez said.
"There's a lot of resentment of the new immigrants by the more Americanized Mexican Americans," he said. "The English-language people say, you're turning your back on us. They see the immigrants as bringing the community down. They don't see the richness."
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Church matron Bertha Sandoval, 70, the U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, is one of the parishioners who is, in the words of one priest, "in mourning" for Our Lady of Guadalupe -- the way it used to be.
"They're giving priority to Spanish, and we think it's unfair," Sandoval said. "I figure you're here in the United States, you shouldn't speak Spanish. I think the people should learn English."
Behind the changes at the church, experts say, is a broader process of assimilation that is emptying the pews of old families and leaving behind empty spaces that are being filled by immigrants. When Sandoval's three daughters married, they moved to affluent suburbs, and they take Sandoval's nine grandchildren to church there. Sandoval thinks they don't come back to their childhood church because, unlike her, they don't speak Spanish.
"My kids don't like to go to any of the services and things, because they don't understand it," she said. "Some of the ladies, like me, don't like to say the Rosary in Spanish."
Ron Cruz, of the Hispanic secretariat in Washington, said such feelings are typical.
"U.S.-born Latinos have not responded all that well to the Hispanic ministry," he said. "There's cultural tension. It's really more popular with the immigrants."
Clergymen try to draw immigrants into the existing U.S. Catholic culture. Some try to "redirect the focus" of immigrants whose overwhelming devotion to the Virgin seems to ignore the importance of Jesus.
But at St. Thomas the Apostle, parishioners speak to God through six different Latin American virgins, and "we just sort of go with it," said the Rev. Dennis O'Neil.
"We do try to steer them away from the statue as a powerful image, and teach them it's a symbol," he said. "But in a gentle way."
O'Neil smiles as he describes how his parishioners swear that they do not worship the folk saints -- some with pre-Colombian roots, none recognized by the church -- whose feast days draw crowds outside parish gates. But the biggest local "botanica," where their images and candles are sold, is around the corner from the church.
At St. Thomas, Zapotec Indian parishioners from the Mexican state of Oaxaca not only brought their church, but also entire villages. And in the prevailing multicultural spirit, their transplanted village councils were incorporated into church life.
The Zapotec councils have helped make the parish contributions the highest of 40 Los Angeles parishes, O'Neil said. One council donated $3,000. The councils also mediate between the Zapotecs and the pitfalls of American culture. Gang graffiti and hand-painted Latin American virgins dominate the urban hieroglyphics on the streets outside, and thieves and exploiters prey on immigrants.
The Zapotecs outmaneuver slumlords by buying apartment buildings -- which the church dutifully blesses -- listing multiple names on the titles and paying for them jointly. Their councils come up with parochial school tuition and send their kids to college at a rate that defies the poverty and illiteracy of their parents. The small percentage of Zapotec youths in gangs are often exiled to a year in Oaxaca, and O'Neil personally escorts some to the plane.
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