The makeup of the Diocese of Jefferson City has shifted over the past 10 years, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight reported to the Vatican earlier this summer.
The diocese he presides over is a mix of urban and rural areas, mostly made up of rural communities. And, while the area's population slightly increased, he stated in his "ad limina" report, the number of Catholics has slightly decreased.
Despite the decrease in Catholic population, the Spanish-speaking population within the diocese has gone from making up 4 percent of the population of the diocese to about 20 percent.
Although a significant jump, it's not as high as the national average for the Catholic Church, he said.
Reaching that population is challenging, church officials said. So, the May 4 ordination of four primarily Spanish-speaking deacons has come at a time when they are greatly needed, said Enrique Castro, director of intercultural ministries for the Diocese of Jefferson City.
"This is the first time that we have had Spanish-speaking deacons in the diocese," Castro said. "They are brand new."
They each have assignments — to work in parishes and across the diocese, he added.
"Their first assignment from the bishop was the parish," Castro said. "They also get a diocesan-wide assignment, which was to support the Hispanic ministry in the diocese. They work here in my office — which is the Hispanic Ministry."
And, they meet regularly at the office for ongoing training.
Three of the new deacons, Nestor Montenegro, of Sedalia, and Luis Reyes and Amparo Orozco, both of Marshall, sat down with the News Tribune to discuss the evolving local communities and the diocese, following one of their meetings.
There are probably 25,000 Hispanics living in the diocese, Castro said.
"The largest Hispanic populations are in Sedalia, Columbia, Marshall and Milan — and they are here and there," he said. "We have pockets around the whole diocese."
Fourteen parishes in the diocese now have Hispanic ministries.
"Some are really engaged — very involved — they have masses every week," Castro said. "Others are offering mass monthly — just starting the ministry. That's why (the new deacons are) helping in those particular parishes."
Their work varies from community to community, Orozco said.
"In Sweet Springs, we help the father in our own community — just like support," he said. "In Mexico (Missouri), we work in evangelization. For new Christians — the people who never knew Jesus, I go to the house and talk to those people."
During outreach, the men are teaching the Gospel, he said.
Having Spanish-speaking evangelization (or Catholic outreach) helps break down barriers, Castro said. Many of the Spanish-speakers in the diocese are undocumented and distrusting of strangers, he said.
Salvadorans make up a large portion of the population in Marshall and Milan.
"Most of them work in meat-processing plants — and some factories, construction — pretty much wherever they can," Castro said.
In Pettis County, which includes Sedalia, three parishes are completing the process of combining resources. Parishes of St. John the Evangelist, Sacred Heart and St. Patrick will be amalgamated into one new parish Sept. 22 — the new parish of St. Vincent De Paul.
"It's a lot of changes," Montenegro said, "especially right now. I helped Father Joe (Corel) to assure the people. He used me for just about everything. So, I just I was serving."
Father Dan Merz, pastor of St. George Parish in Linn, said the diocese maintained Hispanic ministries for years but struggled to attract Spanish-speaking Catholics it knew were in the communities.
"Now to have some home-grown vocations — permanent deacons. To add that charism to the ministry will make it blossom," Merz said.
One of the new deacons was assigned to a parish that had about 30 Hispanics attending Sunday mass each week, Merz was told. The new deacon organized groups to go house-to-house and talk to residents.
"Before long, he had over 300 people coming to mass," Merz said. "It's a grace."
In addition to being a liaison between the priest and leaders of the Hispanic community, Montenegro said he serves during masses on Wednesdays and Sundays.
There is also a lot of change for the new deacons — each of who have been in the United States for decades and have been naturalized, Reyes said.
Reyes said he struggles most with English. Some concepts are difficult to translate, he said.
The deacons worry they might mis-translate some of the nuances in the languages, they said.
Years ago, before the latest diaconate started — it was five-year training process — the diocese began recruiting Spanish-speakers and Hispanics, Castro said. And for its five years, the training — provided by priests — was bilingual. Unfortunately few priests in the diocese spoke Spanish. Priests who helped with the training included Pat Dolan, who recently retired, Francis Doyle, of Columbia, and Geoffrey Brooke, who in March was placed on administrative leave while allegations of boundary violations with minors are being investigated.
The diaconate has had a variety of instructors — both priests and laity, Merz said. Using the new Spanish-speaking deacons in upcoming training is not out of the question, he said. The diocese is reviewing the program to see where it might best use its resources.
Although God called him to the sacrament, Orozco said he still had to convince his wife he should be a deacon.
He'd already done much of the work that was to be expected of him as a deacon, people around him said. And some already considered him a deacon.
"When I tell my wife, maybe for the first time in the community, we're preparing people for the (permanent deacon) formation — I told her I was going to try," Orozco said.
She said "No." He was already working a lot in the church and didn't have to do anything else. He already served in the mass. He already did all those things. She asked what the point was.
Changing his wife's mind is not something Orozco has ever had much success with, he said.
"I don't know how God switched her mind. She switched," he said.
Montenegro said becoming a deacon was not his idea. It was a suggestion from "Sister Eileen" in Sedalia. It came from her mind and heart, he said.
He didn't know anything about being a deacon, although he too was already doing much of the work, Montenegro said. And when the interview for this process started, he said he'd do it.
His oldest daughter, Virginia, asked him if he was certain it was what he wanted.
"I say, 'Yeah. I pretty much do the role of the deacons for the parish every Sunday, so what's the difference?' So, my family accepts very much my role," he said.
Now, he's known by his nickname at home as Deacon Nato.
Explaining their roles to their Central American friends and families is difficult at times.
The Spanish-speaking community — particularly those who come from Latin American countries — don't know much about deacons, Orozco said.
In Latin America, there are few deacons, Castro (whose family still lives in Old Mexico) said. One of the reasons is there's no shortage of priests in the region.
"My mom came, and we went to a mass," he said. "She thought the deacon was a priest — and then saw him with his family afterward."
She asked what was going on, and Castro explained he was a permanent deacon.
"OK, I don't like it," she replied.
McKnight has said deacons are not really an answer for shortages of priests, Castro said. The deacon serves primarily as a connection between the priest and the community. Volunteers serve that purpose in Central America, he said.
In some parts of Central America, deacons can be controversial topics, he added.
In Central America, people are certainly less accepting of deacons, Reyes said.
"Here, it's a little different," he continued. "But, people coming here from Central America — and living here — change their minds. And accept this issue in the church."