The percentage of the population who are registered Catholics has remained basically the same in New Mexico and throughout the Catholic United States since the Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII 50 years ago. For the nation’s 195 dioceses the number has fluctuated slightly around 25 percent annually, while in New Mexico the number has ranged higher, with some polls suggesting more than 30 percent. The USA ranks fourth in the world in the actual number of Catholics behind Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. In New Mexico, three counties, Mora, Guadalupe and Harding, rank in the top ten most Catholic counties in the country, all registering over 80%, with Mora and Guadalupe over ninety.
Recent world figures indicate there are two and a quarter billion Christians in the world, with over half of those being Catholic, thus making the Catholic Church the largest religious body in the world.
According to figures from CARA, the Catholic research and analysis arm of Georgetown University, there are less priests, sisters, and brothers in the American church than anytime since Vatican II, but there are more seminarians now than anytime in the last thirty years. During that same period, the number of permanent deacons has skyrocketed, more than doubling, as has the number of churches being pastorally administered by someone other than a priest, a further indication of the laities increasing involvement in the daily running of parish operations.
In other parts of the world, mostly those areas which have been considered missionary territory in the past, the number of priests is actually on the increase. The more active involvement of the laity and the decline in the American priesthood has caused the USA to now be considered mission territory of the universal church, and many Catholics have witnessed an influx of priests from Latin America, Africa, and India.
Missionaries arrived in the American territories on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus, and by 1513 had begun to settle what is now Florida, even before the Protestant Reformation seized European churches. It wasn’t until 1789, however, that the US had an official diocese, the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In those earlier days, being Catholic in the ‘colonies’ was a risky undertaking. Persecution was in order, churches were burnt, priests were tortured and run out of town. Some townships even enacted anti-Catholic laws. Nonetheless, the church continued to spread into every new territory. The first parish was established at St Augustine, Florida, followed by missions in California, New Mexico, and Texas. The number of Catholics remained small and persecuted after the freedom granted by the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights. Early growth was slow but steady. Then with the Louisiana Purchase, the number of Catholics in the USA instantly doubled, and with the further inclusion of the southwest, the lands of the Mexican Cession, Catholicism grew to be the largest single religion in the country.
When Spanish explorers entered the wild territory that would become New Mexico, near the mid-16th century, they were accompanied by a contingent of Franciscan missionaries that must have looked like an army to the native people. Religion under the Spanish has been well documented to include religion-by-force or death. When the soldiers returned to their legions in Mexico, many of the priests were tortured and killed.
Finally, under the heavy-handed administration of Don Juan de Onate, the Indians were subdued and the first settlement was established in 1598 at San Gabriel. This is the year recognized as the introduction of the Catholic faith in New Mexico, now in its fifth century of being. Twelve years later the capitol of the territory was moved to a place known as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi), or, as it is often called, Santa Fe. The naming of this city in a territory known as “The New Kingdom of St. Francis,” recognizes how strong the presence of the Franciscan missionaries had become. They had built a Christian faith among the Indians, and stood the test of that faith, many of them becoming martyrs.
In 1680, with a weaker military presence, the Pueblo Indians revolted. They drove the settlers out, murdered priests, completely destroyed churches and other symbols of the Spanish God, and the remnants of the army retreated to what is now El Paso. It wasn’t until 1693 that Spanish law was re-established in the region, and naturally the troops were accompanied by a throng of Franciscans, who began to rebuild everything. The church was stabilized somewhat and stayed that way, always growing, until 1821 when Mexico declared independence from Spain. The support for the Franciscans wasn’t in Mexico, and they began to drift away from the New Mexican mission. The Franciscan presence, though continuing to diminish in New Mexico, is still felt, especially at the Indian missions and reservations, where Franciscans serve almost exclusively.
In 1850, four years after New Mexico became an official US territory, Pope Pius IX created an administrative office for the territory and appointed a French priest, Jean Baptiste Lamy, to oversee it. This was still the wild (and getting wilder) west; the Civil War hadn’t even happened yet. Bishop Lamy was as much an adventurer as he was a solid man of the cloth. Accompanied by Fr. Joseph Machebeuf, a legend in his own right and quite significant in the formation of the diocese in Denver, the bishop built churches and recruited religious, even to the point of inviting priests and nuns to the healthy climate of New Mexico Territory. A fictional novel that retells much of Lamy’s story on a very real backdrop is Death Comes For the Archbishop, an award winning effort by Willa Cather. So much so was Bishop Lamy’s legend a tale of the old west, that Cather’s book is listed by the Western Writers Association as one of the 10 best westerns written.
A long time has passed since Blessed Fr. Junipero Serra walked the byways of California Territory and on the way built nine missions. The Franciscan priest’s most famous one at San Juan Capistrano was built the same year the American Revolution began. Even further back in history, the priests of Spain and France had made their presence known in all of the new American lands. The legacy they began in New Mexico is thriving.
No two published polls seem to have the same figures, but a fair estimate is that almost 30% of New Mexicans today consider themselves Catholic and more than three quarters of them attend Mass weekly. The number of Catholics in 2010 was a full 2% better than it had been 6 years earlier. Those numbers continue to increase proportionate to the state population. The Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, along with the Loretto Chapel, continues to be, not only a beautiful historic church, but popular tourist attraction, not to mention the lure of all the old mission churches scattered throughout the state. El Santuario de Chimayo is the third most popular pilgrimage destination of American Catholics.
The Catholic Church in New Mexico and throughout the United States remains a stalwart in the battle for social justice and civil rights. Catholic Hospitals and health organizations continue to be a vital part of the American medical system. Catholic Charities have combined for phenomenal works including the rescue of thousands from the oppressive government of Myanmar, and the care of those suffering grave natural disasters. The Church has always been a work in progress and succeeds in its ecclesiology even in the face of challenges within and without. It’s good to be a Catholic in New Mexico, and those are the facts and figures.