The Catholic Commentator  

For the Hispanic community in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the arrival of three additional priests to assist Father Robert Halter CSsR in his ministry as chaplain of the Hispanic Apostolate can be rightly compared to shepherds tending to their flock. 

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Bishop Robert W. Muench, center, is shown with Father Gilbert Ahr Enderle CSsR, left, and Father Robert Halter CSsR during a recent Mass at St. Pius X Church in Baton Rouge. Father Halter is serving as chaplain of the Hispanic Apostolate and is being assisted by Father Enderle, along with Father Don McKennon CSsR and Father Donnell Kirchner CSsR. Photo courtesy of Julia Scarnato | The Hispanic Apostolate

 

Only in this case, Father Halter and his brother priests, in the Remptorist order, are tending to a faith-parched community seemingly lost in a strange land, challenged by language barriers and adjusting to significant cultural differences, even in the celebration of Mass. 

“You have to be a shepherd, go out and look for the sheep, and know how to speak to them, know their culture,” Julia Scarnato, executive director of the Hispanic Apostolate, said, adding that the language barrier often is secondary to the actual ministering to the community. “When you see the shepherd and you are the sheep, you see the shepherd looking for you and trying to help you, you will understand this shepherd is so good that you don’t care about the language too much.” 

Father Halter said his order, at the request of the diocese, has agreed to staff the pastoral side of the apostolate. He added the request came after former chaplain Father Eliecer Montan Grimaldos MCM was moved by his order in June. 

Father Don McKennon CSsR, who is retired, helped during the fall and Father Donnell Kirchner CSsR, and Father Gilbert Ahr Enderle CSsR joined him and Father Halter earlier this year. 

“(Scarnato) is the director and administrator (of the apostolate),” Father Halter emphasized. “We work on collaboration but I’m pretty much free of the administrative responsibilities, which is a real blessing.” 

He said his role is to administer the sacraments, preach the Gospel and what he called the “animation” of the community. 

What Father Halter and his brother priests have uncovered is a community deep in faith, yet yearning for spiritual enrichment. 

“We are trying to keep the Catholic faith alive for these people,” Father Kirchner said. “They all come from Catholic origin (now living) in a strange land for them. It helps keep their identity alive through the Catholic Church.”

He added that even the Masses and celebration, might be different for the Hispanic community than what would traditionally be found in an “Anglo church.” 

Father Halter said much of his time is devoted to marriages, with some couples waiting to have their marriage validated in the church. Many other couples have been planning to get married but for various reasons, including overcoming immigration regulations that could alter a person’s status if he or she were to get married, have not able to do so. 

“It is a crying need,” Father Halter said. “It’s a terribly young community and because of that, when they want to marry there are all kinds of obstacles.” 

He said preparing annulments, which is another pressing need, has been especially challenging because the testimony must be taken in Spanish and then translated into English. Additionally, he must communicate with officials in El Salvador, which magnifies the difficulties. 

He credits Father Paul Counce, judicial vicar for the diocese, for his support and said finalizing the cases will be a “wonderful thing for this community. 

“Then, everybody will say this is what I’m going to do, going to get this fixed up,” Father Halter said. “These couples are really devoted to the church, and give all of this service and all of this ministry in any ways they can. 

“They are dedicated, and those are the people I want to help.”

Baptisms were originally an issue because of a backlog, and on the first Sunday administering the sacrament, Father Halter said he baptized 40 people. 

“It was a buildup, we would never repeat that,” he said, adding that he performs baptisms weekly to an average of 20 children per month. 

Although the challenges might often seem overwhelming, the clergy members agreed their ministry to the Hispanic community is vital. Father Halter said the community is culturally and linguistically abandoned, and their work is essential if they are going to help the Hispanic people live their faith. 

“If we don’t (minister to the community) this population is going to be lost to the church,” he said. “The diocese is putting a lot of money behind this ministry, so it’s not just our work but the support from the diocese. 

“I think because of Julia’s efforts there is a new awareness. There is a huge population and they deserve attention.” 

“This falls into the attention of Pope Francis being with the people in the field hospital and going to where they are in their concrete circumstances, respecting their way of approaching God,” he added. “It may seem simplistic to a U.S. population heart but the pope has called this a people’s mysticism. “There is a language of the heart and not just a language of the tongue.” 

The clergy members said they have been moved by the faith of the people. Father Kirchner said
he was even surprised that so many men are strong in their own faith lives. 

Scarnato said she believes the presence of Father Halter and his brother priests has already made a difference in a short period of time. As one example she cited the increase in demand for confession, especially since the sacrament was made more accessible this past Lent. 

But Scarnato also understands the demands the Hispanic community places on their priests. 

“In our culture, we don’t see the priest as being a desk person but being where the people are,” she said. “The priest must be everything to the Hispanic community: psychologists, counselor for children, psychiatrist, a person to listen to their problems, their feelings, their issues. They want to talk to the priest for everything because they don’t have anybody else they can trust.

‘They just want to sit down with somebody and take out their frustration.” 

Scarnato also praised Bishop Robert W. Muench for his dedication to the Hispanic Apostolate and the use of the former St. Pius X Church and school building. 

“Bishop Muench has been very committed to the Hispanic community and comes out to celebrate the annual (Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass),” she said. “We believe he made a very good decision to give the apostolate (use of) this building.

“We are appreciative of all that he has done.” 

Scarnato noted that the celebration of the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass, which has seen a dramatic surge in attendance during the past few years, has outgrown the St. Pius gym where it has been celebrated. She is seeking a church or even a building that could accommodate a crowd of up to 1,000 people for the Mass, which is celebrated on Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Father McKinnon said future plans call for starting adult education classes in the fall and possibly youth activities in the summer.