Our Lady of Guadalupe. Via Wikimedia Commons

Latino Jolt

"Francis has been like a magical chord which resonates in the hearts of the Hispanic people." A look at Pope Francis and the Hispanic communities in the United States.
Mattia Ferraresi

The history of the Hispanic communities in the U.S. is made up of intertwined stories of immigration and of exodus, in which the hope of a happy future in the land of the free is intermixed with drama and disappointment. It’s the history of a diverse people who have grown familiar with suffering and marginalization, but also with compassion and solidarity– the priceless fruits of the Catholic tradition that has outlived the plight of the diaspora that began generations ago. It is a people who are at once deeply rooted and stranded without roots.

It’s true that Francis is every man’s Pope–a recent survey from the Pew Research Center reports that 80% of American Catholics are excited about the Pope–however, it’s also true that he speaks in a language and cadence that is proper to the Latino communities which dot the land first colonized by the English Pilgrims and French Jesuits in the East, and by the Spanish Franciscans in the South and West. His appeal is not a factor that can easily be reduced to a matter of language or geography.

Most Americans would say it’s because of his “empathy,” his capacity to relate to others and put himself in their shoes, and though this is a term that can be easily abused in the political realm, one can see the point. His insistence upon the existential periphery, on compassion for the poor, and of faith as a personal encounter which transforms daily life or his use of live interviews with his direct, colloquial style; and the humble strength of his gestures: through all of these traits Francis has been like a magical chord which resonates in the hearts of the Hispanic people who have grown to have such a profound influence on the life of the United States and of the Church.

SPACE FOR A DIALOGUE. It follows naturally then that in his first meeting with President Obama in March, the Holy Father spoke of “immigration reform,” a mirage that can be sought across the divisions of the American political sprectrum, but which, nonetheless vanishes whenever the debate threatens to be concretized at the level of legislation. It’s precisely here, in the immigration debate, that the Obama White House and the Vatican could find a space for dialogue which has come to an impossible standstill on other topics, such as right to life issues and religious freedom.

Francis’s position was further reiterated a few weeks after the meeting with Obama through the strong message sent by the ‘transnational’ Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sean O’Malley on the border with Mexico on April, 1st. Holy Communion was distributed through the fence that divides Nogales, Ariz, with its twin city across the border was a living sign of the reconciliation that the Hispanic people long for. There are approximately 53 million Latinos living in the United States, which is second only to Mexico in terms of the size of the population of Hispanic origin. At lease one fifth of these are in the country illegally, and 25 percent live below the poverty line. They are still bound by strong family relationships, which is worth noting in a country whose society tends toward autonomy and isolation. As the Hispanic population grows, so does the attention paid to it for its political and cultural sway, as well as their influence on the Church. Thirty-nine percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, and a fourth of the country’s parishes have ministries dedicated to Spanish speakers. But what impact has the first year of Francis’s Pontificate had on these people? What are the aspects that have inspired the lives and imaginations of this community which is simultaneously so tenacious and so fragile?

For Mario Paredes, former Chairman of the Board of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL) and White House appointee and special envoy to Latin America under the Reagan administration, this year was “important for the entire Hispanic world, and especially for Latin Americans. First and foremost, the arrival of Bergoglio was a way of recognizing that now almost half of the Catholic Church lives in the ‘New World,’ and there is a movement toward the Western Hemisphere.” Next, Paredes explains, Francis “has changed the tone of the discourse. It has gone from an academic and moralistic style to a more conversational, friendly and understandable one. The most striking thing is that the Pope speaks the language of the Gospel, rather than exercising theological or philosophical teachings. People listen and they understand. His simplicity is something that everyone has seen, commented upon, and appreciated.”

"Communion distributed through the fence was a living sign of the reconciliation that the Hispanic people long for."

America is also the arena of great “culture wars”–including social debates over life issues, family, and education–and the Latino population is historically a strong force of opposition against the secularization of society. The Pope has reiterated doctrine, but he invites us not to transform the Christian position into an obsession. “For some Francis was a shock,” Paredes says, “because they believe that he puts a lot of emphasis on things that aren’t important. But the most important things in society have to do with the fact that God comes first. From there you can begin to build up values. Is he ‘flexible’ about doctrine? Not at all. Sure, if faith is based on ideological values, he who conceives of it this way will be disappointed by the Pope, but we have to fight against hypocrisy and rediscover the faith for what it is.” And inside this rediscovery there is also a message of hope for a country in an endless dispute over immigration reform. “The Pope calls for a more humane treatment for immigrants, and inspires laws guided by compassion,” says Parades. “From the beach of Lampedusa, he sent a message: humanize situations that are inhuman. Which, in the end, is simply the Gospel.”

Carmen Aguinaco, president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, says that now “Hispanic Catholics in the United States feel understood in their trials and in their outlook on life.” It’s a view made up primarily of realism and compassion, Aguinaco reminds us. And thus “the people feel encouraged: they see their beliefs reflected in those of the Pope. In addition, the way of thinking of Hispanics is very concrete and reality- based, which makes the Pope’s approach more familiar and accessible. In the past, people didn’t read, and sometimes didn’t even hear about the Pope’s writings, but now they are much more approachable.”

“Hispanic Catholics feel understood in their outlook on life.” It’s a view made up of realism and compassion."

WELCOMED OR TURNED AWAY. Latinos are a people who are concrete, tempered by difficulties, but easily inviting a ‘fiesta.’ This is a tendency which fits well into the “Gospel of joy” that Francis announces. And what about the Hispanics who aren’t Catholic? How do they perceive Francis? According to Aguinaco “the tenderness and closeness to the poor and simplicity of this Pope touches everyone. Maybe they are hoping that this will generate reforms, which will probably occur at a slower rate than people think, but there is a sense of enthusiasm surrounding that which many perceive to be a renewal of the Church.”

One defining characteristic that Aguinaco identifies in the Hispanic community can be summed up in the word ‘hospitality’. “The inclusion and welcome that he shows with his words and gestures is one of his most convincing traits: a Pope who is capable of accepting others certainly could not turn away a people who know well what it means to be turned away and discriminated against. No, Hispanics feel that they are a part of the Church just as much as those from any other culture.” Latinos will continue to “defend values such as life and will maintain their traditional views on social issues. But this new emphasis will help them to connect their faith, which is sometimes viewed in a private and intimistic way, with their social convictions or with gestures of solidarity. I think that in the minds of many, these two worlds are separate, and the Pope is helping them to reunite these two elements which are essential for the life of faith,” says Aguinaco.

This unity of the faith reawakened by Pope Francis is also a point of emphasis for Reynaldo Montemayor, president of the Federación de Institutos Pastorales and director of the Pastoral Institute of the Diocese of Laredo, Texas. Here, the Francis factor is translated as “a new evangelical impetus. We Latinos are well aware of our growing presence, and that the Church is becoming more and more Hispanic. To have a Latino Pope who calls us to a new evangelization to those on the margins– that is, among our people–is truly providential; it’s a gift that has been given to us. The non-Catholic Latino community is extremely receptive to the Christian experience, especially to the way in which Francis is communicating it, and therefore we are entrusted with a twopart mission: to proclaim the Gospel and to re-proclaim it to those who have lost the faith, becoming promoters of Chrisitanity for the entire United States, not only for Hispanics. I believe that this is the mission that is asked of us in this historic moment, and, who knows, maybe one day, missionaries from the New World will set off to re-evangelize Europe. For sure we can say that much of this ‘leavening’ in our community is due to the presence of Francis.”