The Transformative Power of the Latino Community

What if the U.S. Catholic Church possesses the key to reversing the trend of declining Mass attendance and disaffiliation?

What if we never have to close the doors to another Catholic school because we have reached enrollment capacity?

What might it look like for Catholic education to carry its magnificent legacy of serving largely immigrant and linguistically diverse students into the next 100 years?

What if Catholic school curriculum and pedagogy, modeled by Christ the Teacher, was rooted in reaching the margins, promoting equity, celebrating language and culture and honoring the gifts of each individual?

The answer to these questions is found in the transformative power of the Latino community. The Catholic Church in America and its magnificent system of schools are facing a demographic imperative that cannot and should not be ignored, and better still, presents a powerful opportunity. I am deeply convinced that the heart of the Catholic School Advantage initiative housed in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education is to ensure that all Latino children benefit fully from the advantages of a Catholic school education. But most importantly, it is also to the advantage of all Catholic schools to be transformed by Latino families. The Catholic School Advantage is equally the Latino Family Advantage.

I often hear arguments that reaching the Latino community is a way of filling empty seats in classrooms and keeping open the doors of Catholic schools. Indeed, these are good ends. But, my research and experience with school communities suggests these goals are too small. In truth, what I’ve come to understand is that the revitalization of Catholic schools can and will be aided by stable enrollment. But, far more importantly, the growth of Latino involvement in Catholic schools yields communities an animating spirit that will sustain and reimagine this resurgence. While I can not claim to know everything that the Latino spirit can and will hold, nor do I want to generalize a diversity of experiences into a single narrative, I can say with certainty that the Latino community has tremendous gifts to offer the Church. As noted in a recent story in America Magazine entitled, “Being family: What Latino Catholics can teach the rest of the U.S. church about community,” walking closely with the Latino community, which values relationships, connections and inclusion, greatly enriches our parishes and schools.

The spark for this work began more than a decade ago in a national report by the University of Notre Dame – To Nurture the Soul of a Nation: Latino Families, Catholic Schools, and Educational Opportunities. Our team is still committed to the tenets laid here, but I often find myself asking a set of questions these days that think beyond enrollment: What would it look like for us to build a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the richness and diversity that exists within the Latino community? What if we committed our time, energies and resources to amplifying the gifts and talents of children and families who live closer to the margins? How do we prepare Latino children in our Catholic schools to be the future leaders of our communities, churches and country?

Yes, the Latino demographic is young and growing, and we need it feeding Catholic schools. At 62.1 million, the Latino population represents the largest and youngest ethnic minority population in the U.S. (PEW, 2021). Fifty one percent of all children in the U.S. under 18 are Latino (PEW, 2016). Furthermore, Hispanic Catholics make up the largest ethnic component of the U.S. Catholic Church. Overall, Hispanic Catholics, whose median age is 29 years old, have contributed 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since 1960 and represent 35 percent of all practicing Catholic parishioners in America (Ospino, 2016).

Regrettably, only 4 percent of Latino Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools. While Latino children account for 19 percent of Catholic school enrollment (NCEA, 2020), it’s still a very small percentage. This small percentage is quite noticeable in a Church with a growing Hispanic population and at a time when Catholic schools across the United States have lost over 1 million students since 2001. In one scenario, if Catholic schools were to enroll between 5 – 10 percent of all U.S. Catholic Latino children, we would never close another school.

This convergence of substantial unmet capacity, namely open seats in Catholic schools, and favorable demographic potential is a providentially promising opportunity for Catholic education and for the American Catholic Church. But, growing the numbers of Latino students in Catholic schools can prove beneficial to both the schools and the students in ways that go far beyond the numbers. So, another way to look at the demographic imperative is to envision the vitality gifted to our Church, citizenry and workforce through the education of Latino children in ways that shapes them to be our next generation of educators, theologians, business owners and parents who pass on the faith to their children and bring life, relationships and joy to our parishes.

Our Catholic schools continue to stand as sacred spaces of hope for families and communities. They, alongside our parishes, are begging to be transformed and reanimated. In my opinion, this call to embrace, educate and empower Latino families is nothing less than ensuring the future of Catholic education and the Church. By fostering schools that leverage the linguistic assets and cultural richness of students, our Catholic schools become places to work through differences, encounter others and, together, build the kingdom of God. Through this work, our Church will not only be serving the Latino community, it will be transformed by it. All the while we will be putting hundreds of thousands of children on the pathway to success.

Join us at CLS to hear more about this work and initiatives.

This blog was submitted by Katy Lichon, Ph.D., Associate Teaching Professor, Director, Catholic School Advantage, Director, ACE English as a New Language Program and Fellow, Institute for Educational Initiatives. Katy will be a keynote speaker at CLS 2023 in Raleigh, NC. Please visit to learn more about the event.