Page last updated at 11:36 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 12:36 UK

Hispanics help reshape US Church

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News

In the remote village of Chimayo, where the mountains of New Mexico swell up out of the desert scrub, the faithful pray for miracles, and offer a clue to the pressures and influences helping to reshape modern American Catholicism.

"Holy dirt"
One of the faithful gathers "holy dirt" - believed to have mystical powers

The ancient tribal peoples of the region believed that the fine, sandy soil from the local hillsides had mystical powers to heal broken bodies and broken lives, and there are plenty of 21st century American Catholics who agree with them.

Officially, the Catholic Church makes no claims for the "holy dirt", as the parishioners describe it, but there is a rack of discarded crutches artlessly displayed inside the church building, which suggests that it doesn't entirely disown the idea either.

The soil is kept in a small, dry, shallow well in a side chapel of the church, and the faithful queue to collect it, using a children's plastic beach shovel to pour it into containers brought from home. They touch samples of the soil to affected areas, they offer it to dying relatives, they ask priests to bless their sample. And they believe.

One woman who had driven her ailing mother all the way from Texas to seek help for her chronic backache was convinced she had found it.

"I definitely felt the Holy Spirit in there; the presence is everywhere here, whether the healing is spiritual or physical," she told me.

Folk beliefs

Religious grotto
Hispanic immigrants bring with them a vitality and a tradition of folk beliefs

Like many other churches across the south and west of the United States, the decor at the church of Chimayo and the tone of worship bear witness to the history of Hispanic culture - a vitality and a tradition of folk beliefs that are very different from the values of Catholics in the colder cities to the north.

Father Jim Funtum, one of the parish priests at Chimayo says that Hispanic immigrants across the US are bringing change to the American Catholic Church. But, he says, they will also be changed by it over time.

"That's how things evolve," he says.

"We are on high ground, as well as holy ground in Chimayo, and there is no better place from which to survey the state of the Church - an issue Pope Benedict will visit later this week.

"The truth is, whatever else immigrants from Latin America bring to the Catholic Church, they bring numbers, and without them this would be a Church in decline. The traditional congregations of the American Catholic Church have been dwindling in recent years, to the point where one American in every 10 is a former Catholic."

Immigration from Latin-American countries though (and the high birth rates among those groups) are more than making up for the decline. About a half of all American Catholics under the age of 40 are Hispanics, and that proportion will continue to grow.

"Church of immigration"

Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says that is simply evidence of an old historical pattern repeating itself in a new community.

"The growth (of Hispanic influence) has really been since the major changes in US immigration policy in the mid 60s, so it really would once have been very much a European Catholic church: Irish, Italian, German influence," he says.

Clearly now, it's the Latino's turn to become part of the Catholic Church
Luis Lugo, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

"Clearly now, it's the Latino's turn to become part of the Catholic Church which has always been a Church of immigration."

The truth is that while Chimayo creates an awkward dilemma for the modern Church (several people there told me of miraculous cures, but there's no sign that the Catholic authorities intend to start to promoting or publicising them).

On the one hand, it inspires claims that might be difficult to substantiate under the scrutiny of modern science. But on the other, there is a spirituality to the place that helps to bring a much-needed vitality back to a Church over which the priestly child sex abuse scandals of recent times still throw a long shadow.

Damaged confidence

The crisis created difficulties at many levels, chief among them, of course, is the trauma suffered by the many victims whose suffering was eventually publicised after years of secrecy and shame.

Church in Chimayo
About a half of all American Catholics under the age of 40 are Hispanics

For the Church, the cost of compensating those victims is crippling and will continue to be a drain on resources for years to come.

But perhaps more importantly, it damaged the confidence of ordinary Catholics in their priests and bishops.

Even Father Funtum, an engaging and convincing spokesman for the spiritual energy at Chimayo, had his story of being falsely accused of perversion by a parishioner who happened to see him pat a small child on the head at a church social.

That charge was absurd but it is a demonstration of the extent of how almost every conversation about American Catholicism (like mine with Father Jim) ends up being dominated by the issue of abuse.

We will know soon the extent to which Pope Benedict intends to address the subject, but it's highly unlikely that he will get through the visit without it being raised.

We already know that the Pope won't be heading for Chimayo - not this time around anyway - and in a way, it's a shame.

If he wanted to get a feeling for how the American Church will look in the future - more Hispanic, more charismatic, more populist and perhaps more mystical - he could do worse than to travel into New Mexico's mountains to see for himself.

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