The rapidly changing realities of the Catholic Church in the U.S. bring a host of challenges and unknowns, but also great opportunities for evangelization and engagement, said experts at a gathering of Catholic leaders.

“The future of U.S. Catholicism is being forged in areas once not central to U.S. Catholic life,” said Dr. Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. “Are we paying attention?”

Dr. Ospino spoke at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” event on July 2 in Orlando, Florida.

He explained to more than 3,500 attendees from parishes and Catholic organizations around the country how the face of the Church in the United States is rapidly changing. In particular, he pointed to the rapid growth throughout the nation, particularly in the South and West of Hispanic communities. He also noted swift growth of other faith communities, particularly Asian Catholic communities and, within some localities, communities of immigrants from Africa. 

These changes have swiftly changed the face of American Catholic life. Fifty years ago, over 80 percent of American Catholics were of European descent. Today, that number is less than 50 percent, with 40 percent of all Catholics claiming Latino heritage, 5 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, 4 percent African-American and 1 percent of Catholics of Native American descent. 

Among Catholics under the age of 30, those numbers are even more diverse.

To address these very shifts in American Catholic life, Catholics should imagine what the future of the Church will look like, Ospino said.

Ospino also suggested Catholics reimagine their relationship with the public square. He warned that the ‘culture wars’ which have been a marker of American discourse in recent decades have hampered, in some cases, the Church’s ability to speak effectively to communities on the margins. 

“It has become impossible to speak about anything because one is expected to take an ideological position to make a point,” he commented.

“The Gospel, my friends, is not an ideology, to be a co-opted to advance an ideological position. The Gospel is a message of life and communion,” Ospino said to applause.

Dr. Ospino’s talk was followed by a panel discussion, describing the different ways the Church is growing and changing in the United States.

Jesuit Father Thomas P. Gaunt, SJ, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, explained that demographic changes in the United States do not apply just to Latino Catholics, but to all sections of the Church in the United States. He noted that populations of U.S. Catholic life are shifting away from the historic centers in the Northeast to booming job markets in the South and West. In addition, he noted, shifts are impacting African-American and Asian communities.  

Franciscan Father Agustino Torres, CFR, works extensively with Latino youth in New York City and explained that Latino youth – one of the largest growing populations of Catholics in the United States, “don’t want just a program,” but an example of the Church’s message. He pointed to the Church’s teaching on love and sexuality as a concrete example of doctrine that youth can apply to their lives, finding Christ in the process. 

“It makes the Church relevant to young people,” Fr. Torres said.  

Daniel Owens, who spoke with his wife Melanie on the powerful encounter of love provided in the Church’s message of chastity, echoed Fr. Torres’ insights, saying that he sees a “real opportunity” in sharing the message of the Gospel, and added that the Theology of the Body has the unique ability to speak to the questions many youth face today.

Outside of any specific program or message, however, Fr. Torres stressed the importance of encounter, particularly when reaching out to young people. Within many cultures, particularly Latino youth, young people feel torn between different cultures and identities asking for their attention. 

“If the Church were to say ‘you belong here, this is your home,’ you’re going to get an army of missionary disciples,” he said.

Full story at Catholic News Agency.