Timothy Matovina never thought he would devote his career to the faith of Hispanic Catholics. But that’s the surprising journey that began when Matovina, now the professor and chair of theology at the University of Notre Dame, spent a semester of his master’s studies in the early 1980s in San Antonio, a decision he calls a “grace-filled whim.”
Over the ensuing 40 years, he’s gone from knowing nothing about Hispanic Catholics to engaging extensively with these brothers and sisters and their communities — ministering, studying, writing and enriching his theological expertise.
“I find it very life-giving. It makes me a better Catholic and a better human being,” he says.
Matovina will speak at the Aug. 7 virtual Catechists Conference of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington on “Passing on the Faith to Hispanic Catholics.” He spoke with Cross Roads about his journey and what he’s learned:
Cross Roads: How significant is the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States for the Church overall?
Timothy Matovina: More than half the young Catholics in this country are now Latino. … We’re going through the largest generational transition of any ethnic language cultural group, including the Irish, in the history of Catholicism in the United States. And we’re going through that at a time that has its own difficulties.
We’re right in the midst of an historic journey of trying to move from hospitality to homecoming. Hospitality is a great thing. … But when we think about it, when we say to folks, “Welcome to our parish,” it’s a very hospitable thing to say but, intentionally or not, what we’re actually saying is, “It’s our parish, and you’re guests. We’re the owners of the house. We set the rules.”
We make the Church truly the Church when people feel not just welcome, but when they feel at home. The Church should feel like a home. … I belong here. This is not just something I do on Sunday. The core of my being is caught up here.
I think we’re on that journey, in hospitality and homecoming. And it’s a journey that’s difficult, because other people sometimes feel like, “Well, we have to make space in what once was ours for these newcomers.” But it’s a journey that can enrich all of us and make us all the one people of Christ that the Eucharist gives us the grace to be.
CR: Why does Notre Dame invest in lifting up leaders in the Hispanic community, as it does in partnership with the Lexington Diocese and other programs?
TM: One of the blessings for a place like Notre Dame, in partnering with a diocese like Lexington, is all that you bring us. Theology is not just for people to sit around and intellectually talk about. Theology is for the life of the Church. … It helps us to be better theologians. It helps us to live out our vocation as theologians in more profound ways.
We learn from places like the Diocese of Lexington, and I hope we help you to move forward in your own leadership and formation processes. Notre Dame attracts great young Catholic men and women who are on fire to spread the faith, and we want to spread that.
[When students] go out and get their feet on the ground in a real-life situation, a parish in a diocese … it enriches our classroom, because they come back and tell you, “This is what happened. This is what I’m struggling with. This is what’s beautiful about working with these people. This is where I see the Lord coming alive.”
Then, when you start reading theology texts with them, it makes sense. It’s a real integral formation. … It’s really mutually enriching, and we see our role across all the programs that we do as, “How do we form new leaders?”
CR: How does the vision of a pope from Latin America help with all of this?
TM: Latinos resonate with his deep humanity, his gestures of love and of connecting with people who are marginal or forgotten. … You need to give suffering, marginalized, oppressed people a reason for their hope.
CR: How has engagement with Hispanic Catholics increased your faith?
TM: One particular point, my own devotion to the virgin Mary, particularly Our Lady of Guadalupe, has just grown exponentially by just looking at the devotion that they have. That’s one of my main areas of research; I write a lot on Our Lady of Guadalupe. … The more I know about that tradition — and again, I’ve been studying that for years; I just love it … — but knowing the people who have the devotion and learning more about it, I’m beginning to realize, I’m not even beginning to understand the depths of what’s going on here. There is something deeply transformative and beautiful and powerful in people’s lives.