The Sleeping Giant

Posted by Jerry Roth on

Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck emphasizes that a sea change is coming to the American Catholic Church. In an NCR article titled Latino Catholic 'sleeping giant' is awakening, he writes, “It is a significant sea change ... and the vitality of the church is what's at stake. Demographically, as you know, Latinos are the youngest group of American Catholics today, and the youth is the future.”

As he explores this central theme however, he also incorporates many of the critical issues facing all Catholic churches as they seek to clarify their future through their annual and strategic planning efforts. Here are a few of the issues that I often hear in staff and leader discussions.

Shifting Culture

Fr. Deck sees a wonderful synergy between the emerging Latino influence in the American church and the ministry of Pope Francis. He notes, "And so what we see is a wonderful coming together of the particular contribution that Latin American Catholicism can make to the church with the ministry of Pope Francis, who is a product of this experience … There is no going back to a Eurocentric, Westernized church". For leaders, it is important to learn about emerging cultures, especially the Latino culture, and incorporate this knowledge in their ministry planning efforts.

Future Focused

Fr. Deck believes that Vatican II continues to call us to the reality of the present and a focus on the future. He says the church should “pick up with what Vatican II really proposed — that we must be inductive and proceed with the reality that is in front of us, and that the focus must be on the present and future more than it should be the past, … Not that the past is not important, not that tradition is not important, but our understanding of tradition is that it must always be brought forward and engage the people and the circumstances in front of us."


This concern continues to emerge in conversations with parish leaders. They are often unclear about their role as lay leaders in relation to the role of the ordained leadership of the parish. Clericalism can quickly diminish lay leaders’ interest in serving in their church and limit the use of their experience and gifts to influence the direction of ministry within their parish. Deck, in concert with Pope Francis, says that clericalism "cuts people off from assuming the responsibility they have for their faith and for their church. It doesn't allow them to exercise their proper roles in the mission of the church, and it deprives the church of talent and ideas and possibilities."


Many demographic studies have suggested that Latinos are moving from Catholicism to Pentecostalism. Fr. Deck suggests that a greater concern is that Latinos, especially younger Hispanics, are moving towards disaffiliation with any church. Deck comments, "Not that they cease to believe in God, but they feel liberated from what they perceive to be an oppressive Catholicism. The trend is particularly sharp among younger Hispanics … who often perceive the church as exclusive of people, and that it discriminates against certain people … notably the LGBT community. This is very scandalous to a lot of young people,"

Role of Women in the Church

This issue remains one of the most important for the future of our church. Fr. Deck comments, "There continues to be a failure to acknowledge the role of women in the church that for our younger Latinos, certainly, is a matter of concern and something that turns them off. When they perceive this, it discourages them. So, we have to continue to confront, as Francis has proposed, the issue of the participation of women in the church, in leadership and different functions in the church,"

Interestingly, the annual women’s Voices of Faith conference was held this week in Rome. Because of a dispute over who would be allowed to speak, the conference moved from the Vatican to the local Jesuit headquarters in Rome. If you would like to know more about this conference, read the article in Crux magazine, Signs suggest a turning point on the role of women in the Church .

Leadership Style of Young Priests

There is a growing concern over the leadership style that our young priests are exhibiting in our churches. Here is how Fr. Deck expresses this concern. "I don't think it is any secret that there is a major concern in our country for what we perceive to be the attraction of young men to the priesthood who seem to be rigid and at times lacking affective maturity and the ability to grow in discernment. … If this is a valid trend, if this is true, then we have a trend that works directly against the church's mission to evangelize. We will have a clergy that is not suitable for it if that trend is not corrected."

Final Thoughts

Although written about the emerging Latino impact on the American Catholic church, Fr. Deck’s article touches on many of the issues relevant to the future of our church. As staff and leaders, we must create opportunities for study and discernment of these issues, seeking a common understanding of the current and future reality we face and how these issues will influence our ministry planning and implementation. I encourage you to read this article and share it as a catalyst for honest discussion of the above topics that are vital to the future of our Catholic church.

Jerry Roth

Research Analyst

The Center for Parish Leadership



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