The sparsely attended Friday morning Mass at St. Bartholomew Parish Catholic Church was in English, and Amparo Lara, more comfortable with Spanish, struggled to understand the homily that urged parishioners to see Jesus with eyes of faith.
As she walked out of the church, in a Northwest Side neighborhood that has become predominantly Latino, Lara, 59, said she hopes the arrival of the first pope from Latin America will spark a more meaningful connection between the Roman Catholic Church and the ethnic group that continues to transform it.
"It would be good to communicate with a priest who knows the community really well," said Lara, who appreciates the weekend Masses in Spanish ? but she said the non-Hispanic priests occasionally struggle with the language.
"I try to communicate with them and to understand them, and I know they're also trying," she said.
The ascendancy of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, of Argentina, to pope last week was heralded as a sign of the increasing importance of Latin America to the future of the Catholic Church.
But in Chicago and other U.S. cities with large Latino populations, the start of Pope Francis' reign also highlights a discrepancy between church leadership and parishioners. Latinos represent about 40 percent of all Catholics in the U.S., but just 6 percent of the country's priests are Latino, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
That's a far cry from earlier days in U.S. Catholic history, when parishes were often ethnically homogenous and Irish immigrants listened to sermons delivered in an Old World brogue while native Italians doted over young pastors who hailed from their village, said University of Notre Dame theology professor Timothy Matovina.
"Latinos are underrepresented in every category of leadership in the church ? bishop, priest ... seminarian, permanent deacon, everything," said Matovina, whose 2012 book "Latino Catholicism: Transformation of America's Largest Church" documents the resulting challenges. "There's tremendous hunger for people who want to serve."
Pope Francis might influence that dynamic in his appointments of bishops, Matovina said.
What will happen when, for example, Cardinal Francis George retires in the coming years as bishop of the Chicago Archdiocese?
"Might we get a Latino this time?" Matovina asked. "That's one of the questions: What kind of appointments will this pope make? People will probably notice if he does or doesn't make Latino appointments in certain places."
At the Archdiocese of Chicago, 42 percent of roughly 2.3 million Catholics are Latino, while less than 8 percent of all priests are either U.S.-born Latinos or Latin American immigrants, officials said.
Seeing the "out of kilter" proportion of clergy to church members about 15 years ago, the archdiocese instructed seminaries to more aggressively recruit Latino candidates for the priesthood, said the Rev. Thomas Baima, vice rector for academic affairs at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein.
The seminary, one of the nation's largest, also has a program to develop deacons and other lay leaders in the church who are Latino ? a segment in church leadership that has been growing dramatically, Baima said.
"So, this has been a conscious recruitment effort by the seminary and the archdiocese to really be sure that we have ministers who are linguistically and culturally competent to serve the Catholics who are here in Cook and Lake counties," he said.
The effort has taken the Rev. Octavio Munoz to Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries in search of candidates for the priesthood in Chicago.
With U.S.-born Latinos, like most other Americans, showing marginal interest in the priesthood, Munoz said, the Chicago Archdiocese has formed relationships with dioceses in those countries in hopes of recruiting clergy who more accurately reflect the church in Chicago.
"The cardinal's idea is that all the priests in the diocese and the diocese itself should reflect the people we serve," said Munoz, whose efforts are concentrated in Mexico because of the Chicago area's large population from that country.
Munoz is rector at Casa Jesus, a formation house for priest candidates from Latin America that teaches English and serves as a finishing school in U.S. Catholic customs before the men are assigned to their first Chicago-area church.
Inside a former North Side convent that serves as Casa Jesus' temporary quarters, five of those priest candidates ? hailing from Mexico and the Dominican Republic ? shared ideas about the question of Latinos in the Catholic church, and some of their concerns about matriculating into Chicago's culture.
"The Hispanic identifies with the priest who is, first, an immigrant who knows their culture," said Miguel Angel Venegas, 24. He said that while in Chicago, he has seen Spanish-speaking American priests confuse the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, with Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil's patron saint.
"The Mexicans, we know about quincea?eras, blessings of the house, blessings of the car and other things that in American culture don't exist," Venegas argued.
Emanuel Torres Funetes, 34, also from Mexico, said that, while that is true, he seeks to become a better priest by learning English and adopting U.S. customs.
"That is also the directive of a Latino priest," Torres said, "that he not only work for Hispanics. We are here to serve wherever the cardinal sends us."
The gradual transition in church leadership can be seen at St. Monica Church in Carpentersville, whose roll of pastors over 50 years has shifted from names like Petit and Weidman to Spanish surnames such as Lopez and Lara.
The dark brick church with tall stained-glass windows was once a haven for blue-collar descendants of European immigrants who migrated from Chicago.
Today, the church is more than 70 percent Latino, mostly immigrant, church officials said.
During a recent evening Mass conducted in Spanish, Maria Patino touched her clasped hands to her bowed head and knelt.
Patino, who lives in Carpentersville and relied on her daughter to translate her Spanish, took great joy in the election of the first Latin American pope, comparing the moment to when her church appointed its first Latino pastor in 2005.
The change in leadership encouraged her to bring to church a baby Jesus statue her mother gave to her in Mexico for Christmas celebrations, Patino said.
"I felt happy when I saw I wasn't the only one," she said. "We're keeping our traditions going."
The Rev. Alejandro Del Toro, associate pastor at St. Monica, said the change in membership and leadership has caused some friction with non-Hispanic church members.
"There's a division, and the division is not really there visible, but you can feel it," he said.
In the Diocese of Joliet, which covers seven counties including DuPage, Will and Kendall, 11 Latino priests and 19 Spanish-speaking priests cater to about 300,000 Latino parishioners. Churches in the diocese are seeking harmony in the face of demographic changes.
"Any of us who deny immigrants will also deny our ancestors," said Larry Lissak, a deacon at St. Pius X church in west suburban Lombard.
After 35 years with the church, Lissak said he is learning Spanish.
"Ministry is like golf ? you've got to play the ball where it lands," he said. "If there's a Spanish population, that's what you have to do."
The church offers a popular Spanish Mass on Saturday nights and coordinates festivals and holidays geared toward its growing Latino parish. Don Bleuher, 81, who lives in an unincorporated area just outside Oak Brook, said he would like to see more assimilation with the church's Hispanic members.
"I just feel like if we're one community, we should all be together, and if that involves having a priest that speaks English and Spanish (at the same Mass), that's OK," he said.
The Rev. Fernando Cuevas, who serves as the Hispanic ministry pastoral assistant for St. Pius, argued that while it's helpful to share a heritage with parishioners, it's more important for priests to be open-minded.
"What is important is to be close to the people, to try to understand the people, to help the people to be close to God," he said.
Nonetheless, Cuevas exemplifies how stretched thin some area churches with growing Latino populations have become. He said Friday that he was looking forward to celebrating Saturday night's Spanish-language Mass at St. Pius, where he could ask parishioners to pray for their new Latin American pope.
To reach his Lombard pulpit, Cuevas must drive about 20 miles from Chicago, where he is pastor of Santa Maria Addolorata Catholic Church in the city's West Town neighborhood.
Cuevas is a Scalabrinian Missionary priest, who works to bring migrants "the consolation of the faith and the comfort of their homeland."
"I'm just a priest who wants to fulfill his ministry," he said.
Tribune reporter Melissa Jenco contributed.
By Antonio Olivo and Duaa Eldeib
?2013 the Chicago Tribune