When Clarita Melendez heard the news that the archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, was named a cardinal, she rejoiced and remembered the years she lived in Georgia. 

“I have been praying for him for a long time, in Georgia and here because we pray for our bishops at Mass. To know that he has been named a cardinal gives me joy,” Melendez told the Catholic Standard

Melendez, who is Salvadoran and a parishioner at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in the nation’s capital, is one of about 270,000 Hispanic Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington. Many of them are immigrants who participate in Hispanic ministry or attend Spanish-language Masses at 39 of the 139 parishes in the area.

For decades, the archdiocese has served the evolving needs of Hispanic Catholics. About 50 years ago, the Spanish Catholic Center was founded to support the growing influx of Hispanic immigrants and provide them basic access to social services. Now, the multilingual office, which is part of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, offers numerous services in four locations. 

Also, the nearly 100-year-old Shrine of the Sacred Heart is one of many parishes that have embraced Hispanic Catholics with their gifts, needs, and struggles. The parish has a vibrant multicultural community that provides meals for the homeless and low-income people, offers English classes for adults, and its website lists over a dozen ministry groups. 

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the cultural and spiritual contributions that immigrants make to the United States. Throughout this COVID crisis, I have found our people to be profoundly committed to God while expressing their love for each other, the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, and those who have lost their jobs through services offered at their beloved shrine,” said Franciscan Father Emilio Biosca Agüero, pastor of Sacred Heart. 

Sacred Heart’s pastor and the rest of his parish community that has welcomed Cardinal Gregory during a few visits in the past year also celebrated the appointment.

“For us at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, where we offer the Sunday Mass in five languages,  promote dialogue, cultural respect, and spiritual harmony, it is a clear sign that the Catholic Church is working to end racism in all of its manifestations,” Father Biosca Agüero said. “Many of our people have suffered the bitterness and dehumanizing effects of racism inside and outside of the Church, and so we share with heartfelt gratitude this great and joyous occasion.”

Alma Maltez, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland, also welcomed the news. 

“It is a blessing to have him as our pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington because we need the love of Christ and His mercy,” said Maltez in Spanish. “It is a blessing that God allows us, during this uncertain time, to rely on the prayers and wisdom of Cardinal Gregory.” 

Hispanic Catholics bring the customs and devotions from their countries, including their love for the Virgin Mary, particularly under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. They reflect the universality of the Catholic Church, pointed out Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville.

“This is a very powerful way for Hispanics to live their faith; that is why Our Lady of Guadalupe is so important in the hearts of not only Mexicans but around all the Hispanic culture,” Bishop Dorsonville said.  

Every year in early December, about two thousand Hispanic Catholics from around the archdiocese and the metropolitan area celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe with a two-mile procession and a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (The annual event, called Walk with Mary, will be online this year due to the pandemic.) 

Frequently, Latin American feast days and celebrations are accompanied by gatherings where people share ethnic foods, music, and fellowship.

St. Mary’s – where 50 percent of parishioners are Hispanic – celebrates Paraguay’s feast of Our Lady of Caacupé among others. These celebrations offer opportunities to bring the community together, explains its pastor, Father Evelio Menjivar. 

“The beautiful thing is that these celebrations are not only for the people of Mexico, El Salvador, and Paraguay, but they are celebrations where the whole parish participates. We all learn from each other’s cultures and faith traditions. We all have learned to eat pozole, pupusas, and chipa,” said Father Menjivar.

Another gift that Hispanics share is embracing family, including extended family and friends.  

Such hospitality has been essential at parishes during the pandemic, when many individuals and families have lost their jobs or fallen ill. 

Sacred Heart has a food pantry program and offers daily warm meals to the homeless and families in need. St. Mary’s started a weekly food distribution program in the early spring for families affected by the pandemic. Both ministries need large numbers of volunteers committed to helping their brothers and sisters in need.  

“Hispanic Catholics are characterized by their strong faith and devotion and for their willingness to share their time and talents in their parishes. Many of them volunteer in liturgical ministries, as catechists, in music ministries, and in whatever capacity they may be able to do so,” said Father Menjivar. 

Hispanic Catholics around the country are participating in the V Encuentro process that encourages them to be missionary disciples sharing their faith. The Fifth Encuentro has helped communities sometimes isolated by a language barrier to integrate into parish life and collaborate with other ministries. In the Archdiocese of Washington, some of the V Encuentro focus is on increasing training in faith formation, supporting advocacy efforts on immigration issues, and strengthening cultural diversity and communication efforts.