Friday, February 13, 2009

“Are you registered in the parish?”

One of the frequent frustrations for both priests and parish workers, including even those who are of Hispanic descent themselves, is the tendency of Hispanic Catholics to answer the question “Are you registered in the parish?” with “Sí, Padre” when the correct answer clearly is “No, Padre.” So frequent that Sr. Rosa María Icaza, who taught our MACC Mini Pastoral Group unit on cultural and communication differences in Hispanic ministry, made a point of mentioning it specifically.

The question itself reflects our peculiar (to Hispanics) norteamericana obsession with making sure we are only attending to “our own”, not someone who ought to be the responsibility of some other parish. The priest shortage in this country has changed the psychological perception of the priesthood from a 24-7 vocation to a 9-5 job. Rather than an “entrega completa”, the typical North American priest seeks every means to protect his precious free time. This is incomprehensible to both priests and faithful from south of the border where it would not be unusual to stop your local priest in the supermercado or the taquería to ask for a prayer or blessing. The business of the soul is not confined within the physical parameters of church and day planner.

So what’s going on here?

1. A difference in understanding: Sr. Rosa María says that Hispanics interpret the question to mean: “Are you registered in the Catholic Church somewhere in the world?” So the answer “Sí” is truthful…from the Hispanic point of view, but the fact is that the person is registered in El Rosario, San Salvador, not San Felipe, Falls Church, Virginia. The solution? Let me rephrase the question: “¿Está usted registrado (o “inscrito”) en ESTA parroquia (o “en la parroquia de San Felipe”)?” Specific question, specific answer.

2. Telling authority figures, including priests, what they think you want to hear: This was also mentioned as a trait to watch out for and it has probably been my single greatest frustration in working with the Hispanic community. Again and again I fall into the trampa of believing that “Sí” means “Sí” and “No” means “No”. Perhaps it comes from my Quaker background with its emphasis on the importance of literal truthful speech. When working with Hispanic people, “yes” is not “yes” but rather “I will try to be there” (“…si Dios quiere” or, as we say in the South, “…Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise”). It is not an intentional lie but a situation where Hispanics are expressing a sincere intent and Norteamericanos are hearing a firm commitment.

Getting back to the parish registration issue, the best solution is not to ask a yes/no question so that there is no “right” answer. Be prepared with a copy of the parish registration form and ask: “¿Está inscrita en esta parroquia o quiere inscribirse ahora mismo?” Assure the person that it is quick and not complicated, que “no es una molestia” and always be alert that literacy may be an unspoken issue and offer assistance readily.

3. Fear of authority: In these days of redadas and deportaciones, many immigrants may be scared away by the prospect of having to fill out a form. We need to be extra sensitive to this in pastoral care. Explain gently why the parish needs this information, that it will not be shared with local government, police and immigration agencies. If the person is still reluctant, back off and just provide the pastoral services requested. Is it really that essential to have the form filled out?

Also, in the case of sacraments, the person may be willing to fill out a form because they understand why the church needs to have a record of their marriage or baptism. You can later use that data to initiate a parish registration form which can be completed once you have gained the immigrant’s trust.

Other times, a negative experience such as the denial of a request for hospital visitation or a burial Mass will impel the immigrant family to register. This is not pretty and I am not endorsing it because I do not believe that a Church that professes to be “universal” should be denying any type of pastoral care to a Catholic simply because they haven’t jumped through some bureaucratic hoop. “Service now; paperwork later” should be our motto.

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