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Pope Visit Highlights Latino Role In The Future Of The Catholic Church


The Pope's visit to the U.S. later this month is energizing the American Catholic community. That's especially true among Latinos, who see the Argentinian-born pope as one of their own. The Pew Research Center says a third of the U.S. Catholic Church is Hispanic, and that's growing. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Latinos represent both the future and a new challenge to the Church.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: In San Bernardino, Calif., on a recent weekday night, nearly 50 Hispanic Catholics are planning their travel to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis. The trip is still a few weeks away, but they can barely contain their excitement.

PHILLIP GARCIA: It is a big opportunity for people, like, my age to start getting involved in church because a lot of younger adults are starting to lose faith.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He is open the doors for everyone - the community gay and the divorce people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I mean, he's all about love and mercy. And he is from Argentina (laughter), so it's, like, a connection, you know, with the Latinos and the - all the Spanish-speaking people.

GONZALES: That was Estela Torres, Arcelia Topete and Phillip Garcia. Their enthusiasm over the Pope's visit coincides with an important development in the American Catholic Church, and you can see it in parishes across the country, especially in the South and Southwest. Hispanics are remaking the church.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Spanish).

GONZALES: At St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Oakland, one of the oldest churches in the diocese of Oakland, hundreds of people fill the pews for a Spanish mass at 8:30 Sunday morning. Monsignor Antonio Valdivia grew up near this church as a boy. He recalls when the parishioners were primarily Irish. Now he's 78 years old and semiretired. He says he sees firsthand the demographic shift here and nearly everywhere else in the diocese.

MONSIGNOR ANTONIO VALDIVIA: I go and say the English mass on Saturday nights in the city. First of all, it's practically empty, and most of them are senior citizens. Then I say the Spanish mass, Be it Saturday night or Sunday morning, they're filled to bursting, and more so, you see complete families - grandparents, parents and kids.

GONZALES: There is evidence that Latinos are making the church younger, too. According to data compiled by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hispanics constitute nearly 60 percent of all Catholics under the age of 18. Latinos are also shifting the geographic center of American Catholicism from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and the West, says Gregory Smith of the Pew Research Center.

GREGORY SMITH: So this has real repercussions for the institutional church in terms of, you know, trying to find a match between where the resources are, where the parishes are, where the priests are, where the schools are and where the people are. These things are all related.

GONZALES: Take, for example, the shortage of priests in the Church, and especially Latino priests. There are more than 40,000 priests in the U.S., but only about 3,000 - or 7 percent - are Hispanic. Monsignor Valdivia says he hopes the Pope's visit will provide a boost to the Latino ministry, especially in the area of pastoral training.

VALDIVIA: Priests, in the future, in seminary training, will have to be highly ethnically aware. And I would say, for the next 20 years, he better know Spanish. He may not want to. (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Valdivia recites an old saying in Spanish. The load forces the burro to move. In other words, Latinos may very well force the Church to change. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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