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Latino Ministry helps Spanish speaking celebrate faith, traditions

SPRINGFIELD — A step into the Office of Latino Ministry on an upper floor of the Bishop Joseph Maguire Pastoral Center is to step into a global world.

The ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is a pipeline to the 13 parishes in the four counties of Western Massachusetts that the diocese covers that celebrate Mass in Spanish.

It is, under director Deacon Pedro Rivera Moran, about bringing the cultures and religious practices of the different Spanish-speaking populations found in these parishes into the liturgy of a church based on both faith and doctrine as well as integrating them into parish life.

“We did a class through our pastoral ministry certification program at Our Lady of the Elms College addressing the multiple Latino cultures that exist in our midst,” Rivera said. “We addressed the opportunity to grow in love as we learn from one another. We also talked about the importance of not changing the aspects of the liturgy that brings us all together as one Church.”

Many Spanish-speaking parishioners in the diocese have come from the Caribbean, and been joined in recent years by those from Mexico and El Salvador, as well as Colombia and Ecuador, he said.

Their parishes range from Blessed Sacrament on Waverly Street in the city’s North End, where many worshippers are from Guatemala, to St. Mary’s in Westfield, where a majority of the Spanish-speaking are from Puerto Rico, to St. Mark’s in Pittsfield, where the bulletin lists weekend Masses in Spanish as well as English and for those from West Africa.

St. Peter Parish in Great Barrington also offers a weekday Mass for Spanish-speaking farm workers in the Berkshires who don’t get “Sundays as a day of rest.”

“They have their Sunday Mass on Thursdays,” Rivera said.

He called Blessed Sacrament in the city’s North End, where Masses are celebrated in both English and Spanish and livestreamed weekdays at 6 a.m., one of the largest such bilingual parishes in the diocese and a “model” for engagement of parishioners.

“Blessed Sacrament, to which All Souls Church on Plainfield Street is yoked after being closed for safety reasons, is a model under Father Jose A. Siesquen-Flores, who has grown that parish by leaps and bounds,” said Rivera of the Peruvian-born priest.

“There are some 300 families and they do a lot for the parish. They have a team of catechists. A team of people who are involved in the liturgy and good readers. They have a deacon in his 80s, Jose Rivera, who retired but still preaches.”

He added that over the last three years the parishioners “did fund-raising of all kinds and painted the interior of the church and then the outside.”

“It looks like a Latin American mission,” Rivera said. “It is so colorful and beautiful.”

The diocesan office of Latino Ministry pops with color as well. There are prints of Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified by the Catholic Church, as well as of Saint Hermano Pedro, a Spanish missionary who worked in Guatemala, and neat stacks of documents that Rivera prepares in Spanish for understanding Church practices and celebrations.

The population of Catholics the office represents include newcomers to the faith in need of instruction as well as those interested in becoming more involved as lay people. Other include long-practicing Catholics who enjoy being part of weekly discussions on faith topics or prayer groups that connect them to other such groups across the globe.

A diocesan office of outreach to those who speak Spanish dates back at least four decades and has evolved as a ministry supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal.

“There are 11 Spanish-speaking priests assigned to the 13 parishes that have Holy Mass in Spanish,” Rivera said. “There are 15 priests that can say they have some Spanish-speaking skills, 19 priests that can celebrate the Mass in Spanish though some cannot have a conversation in Spanish and 11 Spanish-speaking deacons.”

He termed “awesome” the support these parishes received during the coronavirus disease pandemic when parishes initially closed last March and then reopened to limited capacity as well as regulations around wakes and funerals.

“The availability and pastoral support over all were awesome,” Rivera said. “I do not know the number but quite a few Latinos were called home to the Lord and all the wakes and funeral Masses, considering the restrictions, were well attended and supported by clergy including that for my mother-in-law who died of cancer this February.”

Deacon Pedro Rivera Moran in his Office of Latino Ministry where a painting of Christ and the Holy Spirit, a gift done by one of his children when he was ordained to the permanent diaconate, is seen in the background. (Photo by Anne-Gerard Flynn, Special to The Republican)

Rivera and his wife, a translator and interpreter for the Westfield Public Schools, raised four children, one of whose artworks of Christ on the Cross releasing the Holy Spirit, hangs in his diocesan office, a gift when Rivera was ordained a deacon.

“The Spanish-speaking population in general seeks the opportunity to worship and fellowship in our native language, to celebrate the spiritual cultural heritage we bring from our home,” Rivera said. “Novenas, traditions, celebrations, our spiritual expressions.”

Rivera, who is retired from a career in teaching and information technology, has been active in Latino ministry since the mid-1980s when he and his wife settled in Westfield from Puerto Rico. He was ordained a permanent deacon in the diocese in 2005, and is assigned to St. Mary’s, in Westfield, where he serves all parishioners.

“Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, homily at Mass, baptism, religious education for three older kids who need to do their First Communion and then I went to bless a house,” said Rivera of what he did as deacon during a recent typical Sunday at St. Mary’s.

His work both at the parish as well as diocesan levels involves him in a variety of leadership and pastoral roles including preparing couples for marriage, preaching during weekend Masses and deepening through re-certification programs what lay ministers to the Spanish speaking understand on both a spiritual and doctrinal level about their faith.

He and Lucy Ramos, the Latino Ministry executive secretary who has seen the ministry expanding during her 22 years working for the diocese, work with the parishes that serve the Spanish-speaking to help them at a diocesan level as well as connect them to related regional and national organizations.

The percentage of Americans who are regular church-goers has declined and trended older in recent years, something that in this diocese has long been reflected in the closing of its schools and the merging of parishes and the aging of both lay and ordained in ministry.

Rivera says there is a need for more evangelization as Spanish-speaking parishioners age and their number in the diocese is a small percentage of the Hispanic population in Western Massachusetts. He and Ramos, disappointed that more young people of Hispanic background were not in attendance at the recent diocesan Youth Day and Mass with Bishop William Byrne, were already making correcting this a priority for future attendance.

Rivera is currently working collaboratively on a pastoral plan to present to Bishop William Byrne on ways Latino ministries in the 13 parishes with Spanish-speaking members can be improved and be better integrated into parish life.

“For years, many of these churches had two pastoral councils – the Hispanic and the English,” said Rivera who holds master’s degrees in human resource development and education administration. “It is one church and one parish and we are trying to get Hispanics to be part of the parish pastoral council.”

He added, “In my parish, we work as a Hispanic commission and whatever we do goes to the parish council and that is the contribution we are starting to grow into.”

He sees integration as something that allows Spanish-speaking parishioners to both share their faith traditions as well as “to have the opportunity to live the spirituality that we grew up with.”

He noted the recent Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday with narration both in English and Spanish.

“We need unity — ‘That they may all be one, like you, Father, and I are one. That the world may believe that you sent me,’’’ said Rivera as he quoted from the Gospel of St. John. “That is what I am looking for. Unity in the Church.”

Blessed Sacrament

Blessed Sacrament Church on Waverly Street in Springfield’s North End is one of the largest Spanish-speaking parishes in the Springfield Diocese. Parish members fund-raised and collaborated to renovate the church, including its colorful facade, during the last three years. (Photo by Anne-Gerard Flynn, Special to The Republican)

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