By Justin Boron
Raymundo Enriquez, 57, a Roman Catholic originally from Mexico, said he has seen his church go from dribbles to droves since he moved to the area 10 years ago.
On Sundays, he said San Felipe de Jesus, the Spanish language church in Forest Park, is packed for all three of its Masses, with parishioners filling the pews and lining the walls.
San Felipe's pastor, the Rev. José Duvén Gonzélez, said the church averages about 500 people for each Mass.
With all the conjecture about whether the next pope will be from Latin America and nearly half of the world's Catholics living there, it is clear how important Hispanics are to the success of the Catholic Church internationally, theology scholars say.
And the selection of a Latin American pope would be a gesture toward that significance, said Loyd Allen, the Sylvan Hills professor of church history at Mercer University.
Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodréguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are two of the cardinals expected to be in the running for the papacy.
But in the United States, where the Church has struggled to maintain a strong following in recent years, Hispanics are even more of a crucial component to its growth, Allen said.
The burgeoning Hispanic presence in places all around the metro Atlanta region, including Clayton County, has made a definite contribution to the spread of Catholicism in areas where Protestant religions had carried most of the spiritual population, he said.
More than 800,000 Hispanic Catholics attend church regularly in the north Georgia area, according to the Archdiocese Hispanic Ministry Office.
In Clayton County, Hispanics make up almost a quarter of the the congregation at St. Philip Benizi in Jonesboro, said the church's pastor, Rev. Gregory Hartmayer.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of them," he said.
Recognizing the demand, the archdiocese has responded by gearing for Spanish 54 of its 120 parishes, where 118 Spanish masses are delivered every week in the Atlanta region, archdiocese officials said.
Atlanta Archbishop, the Rev. Wilton Gregory even gave his coronational address in Spanish.
Gonzélez, who has served in Atlanta for the past ten years and is the director of the archdiocese's Hispanic Ministry Office, said the actual number of the Hispanic Catholics in Clayton County may be even larger, given the number of parishoners who attend mass but do not register.
The influx of Central Americans and Mexicans into the area, he said, has forged a new beginning for the Church, which has traditionally taken a distant backseat to the popular Protestant religions.
Gonzélez said Hispanics' apparent enthusiasm for the Church has prompted diffusion of the religion to other cultures of people, who may have been less likely to latch onto Catholicism 10 or 20 years ago.
"White Protestants will be a minority in places like Clayton County," he said.
What the growth in the Catholic Church in the Atlanta region might lead to is a shift in politics, Loyd said.
"Religion, especially those that are closely held and deeply felt can have an affect on the moral structures of society," he said.
The traditionally Democratic vote in Clayton County may move further to the right if Hispanics, influenced by the Church's conservative stance on abortion and contraception, continue to grow as a group, Loyd said.
But on the other hand, the Church is very anti-war, he said.
"I don't think anyone knows which way the vote will go," Loyd said.