How much will Francis impact Hispanic Catholics?

With the first Latin American pope about to visit the United States for the first time, observers said the trip will energize and involve the Hispanic community and has the potential to have a long-lasting impact for Latinos, who account for nearly 40 percent of the 78 million U.S. Catholics.

As the Latino population continues to increase rapidly ­— with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating that the Hispanic population will reach 128.5 million by 2060 — experts said that the visit of the charismatic pontiff could strengthen the ties between the U.S. Church and Hispanics.  

Hosffman Ospino, a professor at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and a main investigator of studies on Hispanic ministry, expects the visit to leave a mark on Latino Catholics in the U.S., particularly for those who are immigrants.

“He understands who we are because he knows the experience,” Ospino said. “He shares our faith — not an abstract faith but rooted in culture, understanding popular Catholicism, the way the Faith is expressed and celebrated in Latin America.”

Ospino added that the pope’s way of speaking of the Gospel is regularly used by Latino Catholics in U.S. ministry.

“For us Hispanics, his message resonates because it is so close to who we are,” said Diana Richardson-Vela, president of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL). “It is a pro-life message. It relates to having a commitment to justice and peace; to taking care of parents, grandparents, elderly, families; and servicing the poor.”

Much in common

Pope Francis is expected to give some remarks in Spanish, which observers said could be a powerful statement because even when most Hispanics are now born in the U.S. and speak English, most retain Spanish as a sign of identity. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), about 6 percent of all Masses (weekend and weekday) in the United States are now celebrated in Spanish.“It will be groundbreaking, because in many parts of United States, the Church is de facto a bilingual community,” Ospino said.

“That he might use Spanish is a reminder that Spanish matters in this country because a large population of Catholics worship in this language.” 

Nationwide, 4,358 parishes — almost one-fourth of the U.S. total — were identified as having some sort of organized ministry to Hispanics.

Richardson-Vela said that this confirms that “Faith is changing because of the changing Hispanic demographic.”

“We hope to respond appropriately and live up to our faith and our values,” she said. “We also hope to see many, many Hispanics who haven’t felt comfortable coming to church to come closer, and those who have left the Church to come back home.”

Another important part of the trip will be his visit to immigrants and an encounter with Hispanic Latino Catholics in Philadelphia, said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Hispanic Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As part of the meeting, the pope will bless la cruz de los encuentros or “the cross of the encounter,” which represents “the journey of faith of Hispanic Catholics in the United States.”

“He will bless that cross and speak to us directly as a gesture of pastoral tenderness,” Aguilera-Titus said.

Experts also expect the pope to address key points of his pontificate — the care for the poor, the plight of migrants, the environment and family life — which affect the lives of Latinos.

Enrique Pumar, the chair of the sociology department at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said Hispanics would be taking cues from the pope’s speech to Congress.

“The pope is going to set an agenda. He is going to advocate for certain principles of the Church and certain issues dear to the Latino community,” Pumar said. “(He will be) adding a more humanistic approach to many of these issues, calling for more compassion and reflection. It can change a debate about inequality that has been very polarized.”

He added that the pope’s visit could also mobilize many Hispanics to become more involved in Catholic social teaching.

Digital embrace

But even if experts have different ideas about the pastoral fruits of this trip, they all agree that the Hispanic community will be elated and bursting with pride. In August, Hispanic Catholic organizations launched the social media campaign to offer platforms for Catholics to share their joy, faith and enthusiasm for the papal visit. The faithful can publish messages, prayers and songs to the website (bienvenidofrancisco.com) or through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, using #BienvenidoPapaFrancisco.

The organizations inviting Latino Catholics and non-Catholics to welcome the pope are: the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry, the Federación de Institutos Pastorales and the Asociación Nacional de Diáconos Hispanos.

“We realized there was nothing specific among Hispanic Catholics to welcome the pope. This is the first Latino pope; we are excited and proud and happy that he is coming,” said Elisabeth Roman, president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry. “And 90 percent of Hispanics won’t be able to go to Philadelphia, New York or (Washington) D.C., so we launched this campaign for them.”

Organizers estimated that more than 50,000 people will access the website daily until Pope Francis arrives, connecting countless Latinos. The campaign plans to reach every parish by mailing posters and prayer cards to Hispanic ministry coordinators.

Other campaign goals include offering the opportunity to welcome the pope “with a fraternal embrace,” generating financial contributions to the most vulnerable through donations, and informing the U.S. Church about “the identity and characteristics of the Hispanic Catholic community.”

“We want to give to the other and create awareness of what the pope says,” Roman said. “At this papal visit, we need to hacer lío [“make a mess”] with our ministry, with our work in our parish. This is an opportunity to re-energize our church.” 

Engaging the youth

For Father Alejandro López-Cardinale, Hispanic programs coordinator for RENEW International and president of the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (La Red), the visit will be an opportunity to engage young Latino Catholics.

He said that youths and young adults are drawn to the pope’s familiarity, his plain language (including, he said, “the lyrical licenses that only an Argentinian could take”), and his response to the Gospel’s challenge to care for the vulnerable.

Young adults, who could later fill in the gaps of a Hispanic leader nearing retirement age, indicate their support of the pope’s charisma and the way he has taken an active role advocating for social issues.

Father López-Cardinale added that Pope Francis’ pastoral approach has been informed by his time working with the poor and his experience with urban ministry and a “teología del pueblo,” the theology of the people that surged as an alternative to a radical liberation theology in Argentina.

“We are going to see these points during the visit, as well as having a ministry that goes from the particular reality to the universal reality,” Father López-Cardinale said.

Moving forward, Ospino expects the impact of Pope Francis’ visit to be twofold: inspiring Latinos to be better witnesses of Christ and giving the Church an opportunity to “see the Latino parishioners as a blessing and a way to reconstruct many communities, investing in a new generation of Catholics.”

“At the end of the day, what is most important is how we build communities that are rooted in the Gospel, families where everybody can live with dignity,” he said.

Lasting impact

The trip is also an opportunity for “both the Church and Hispanics to engage more closely,” said Robert Hurteau, president of the Federacion de Institutos Pastorales.

“Almost every Catholic in the country has a sense that Catholicism in the United States in the 21st century is intimately linked to the Latino experience,” Ospino said. “Gone are those days when Latinos were thought about being a small group of people in the basement of a church.”

He added that the awareness of the increasingly Hispanic nature of the Church, and its projected growth, challenged all Catholics — Latinos included — to respond and embrace that presence and “make it part of the larger American Catholic experience.”

“If I could dream, the Church leadership would challenge Latino Catholics to go deeper in their formation and become the new generation of leaders,” Hurteau said.

One way to go deeper is for Hispanic Catholics to be “heralds of the pope’s message to be a missionary Church, pay attention to the poor, build a community that is united and seeking to build a better world and community for those who are weak,” Ospino said.

In doing so, the country can move from a mere awareness of each other’s gifts to becoming active protagonistas of evangelization.

Though identifying the direct effect of the visit would only be possible after it takes place, Aguilera-Titus with the USCCB said the impact will be far-reaching and will connect with Hispanic/Latino Catholics in a unique way.

“Pope Francis brings a sense of the Faith and a way of speaking about the Faith that is very familiar to us as Hispanic Latinos,” Aguilera-Titus said. “His love for the poor, his tenderness for the people, the way he is a shepherd that knows the sheep resonates deeply with us.”

 Maria-Pia Negro Chin writes from New York.