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Faith of Hispanic Catholics rooted in family

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff

The faith bequest of Ronaldo Cruz’s late grandmother, Amelia Cruz, to the U.S. church is a vital element of the Hispanic Catholic heritage in the United States. It is a bequest to be reflected in a July 2000 “gathering in of ideas” at a national encuentro (“encounter”) proposed by the U.S. bishops (see accompanying story).

For Grandmother Cruz was not a regular churchgoer, though, like many Hispanic women, she was deeply spiritual. And through that spirituality passed on the faith to succeeding generations.

She had her rosary and her altar in her Tucson, Ariz., home. She blessed the children and grandchildren on feast days. Ash Wednesday was her biggest day. That’s when she’d prepare a huge meal of fish and traditional Lenten foods. Through these devotions, explained Cruz, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs Secretariat, “she was the one who passed on the faith to us – without being part of the official institution.”

The devoted Catholic Hispanic whose spiritual life exists primarily outside church functions is a challenge to the U.S. bishops – and it calls for a re-evaluation of how the faith is transmitted, an understanding vital to holding this increasingly multicultural church together.

Grandmother Cruz’s less formal and almost non-institutional approach to church also puts Cruz squarely on the spot, for his job is explaining “the Hispanic reality, the Hispanic presence” to the U.S. bishops.

It is also a reality that delegates to the 1997 Synod of the Americas -- delegates from North and South America, from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America -- have to contend with in their home churches.

Cruz is emblematic of second- and third-generation U.S. Hispanics who have moved into the middle class. Of his seven siblings, three, in addition to Ronaldo, “are really into church,” he said. “The four younger ones are not.”

Ronaldo and his wife, Jane, have two children, Humberto, 27, a computer network engineer, and Elida, 25, a computer Web producer.

The Cruzes have been in the Tucson area since it was part of Mexico, and include Chilean and Yaqui Indian in their heritage. Cruz’s Catholic identity is an integral part of his journey from Tucson to the bishops’ conference in Washington.

“The Discalced Carmelites and particularly the Redemptorists were really influential in my life,” said Cruz. “They were the first to tell me it was OK to be Chicano and that the church needed me probably more than I knew.”

From a “background of poverty and injustices in my neighborhood” -- St. Margaret’s parish on Tucson’s west side -- Cruz moved through local War on Poverty work to a master’s in social work and teaching in Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic High School.

Variety became Cruz’s life: teaching cultural awareness to the Tucson police department (“they were not very nice to our people”), social service agency work (“we set up the first AA in Spanish in Tucson”) and youth work in a school for young offenders (“last chance, either attend or be institutionalized”).

Battling for social justice – not least through Democratic Party work – he had a great mentor in the person of the late Sister of St. Joseph Clare Dunn, the only religious ever elected to the Arizona state legislature, where her portrait hangs.

Also deeply involved in local Mexican-American issues was Bishop Francis Joseph Green of Tucson. He asked Cruz to direct the diocese’s Hispanic Ministry office, which he did from 1980 to ’85. “I want to reunite my church,” Green told Cruz. Tucson had a new cathedral, which instantly became a Mexican parish, and two blocks away was All Saints, primarily non-Hispanic. The bishop wanted to close All Saints and bring the two communities together as one in the cathedral. It was accomplished. Cruz was also into Hispanic parish development: from encouraging Bible studies to community action.

What didn’t happen was saving the inner-city Catholic schools. “We failed to do the ‘awareness’ regarding the need for education,” he said, “not only Catholic but public.”

From Tucson, Cruz became 10-state regional director (the plains states, New Mexico, Texas and more) for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic antipoverty program, until he joined the campaign’s staff in Washington.

In 1992, he succeeded Pablo Sedillo as director of the U.S. bishops’ Hispanic Affairs Secretariat. It’s a job that means he’s on the road most of the time. That routine doesn’t much lend itself to parish and small Christian community life, though Cruz is connected to both.

But he’s not bereft.

He has his grandmother’s home altar and all her sayings and her saints.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999