The election of the first Latin American pope in the Roman Catholic Church is eliciting a greater sense of solidarity among local Hispanic parishioners.
“It’s exciting to have a pope who speaks Spanish and has an understanding of Latin American culture. Most Hispanics are Catholic, and a great amount of Catholics are Hispanic, so it’s good to have someone who can really connect with us,” said Xochitl Lozoya, 27, a parishioner at St. Bernard in downtown Akron. “It’s very inspiring to know that a man who has lived among the people in Latin America is now pope.”
When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, stepped out onto the balcony at the Vatican on Wednesday as Pope Francis — the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, of which more than 40 percent are Hispanic — he made history. And his presence touched the hearts of Hispanic parishioners in a special way.
“In many ways, it is a public acknowledgement of the value of Hispanic parishioners. It has given them someone in leadership who can be identified as coming from their world,” said the Rev. Thomas Bishop, pastor at St. Anthony/All Saints Parish in Canton. “This is a man who has been linked to the people on a day-to-day basis. A lot of the Hispanic parishioners here are humbled by his elevation to pope. It has prompted a lot of positive and hopeful responses, and people are eager to learn more about him.”
In the United States, a third of all Catholics over the age of 40 and nearly 50 percent of Catholics under age 40 are Hispanic. Most of Latin America, (72 percent) is Catholic. The 432 million Catholics in Latin America account for more than 39 percent of the world’s Catholic population, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Locally, St. Anthony/All Saints (www.stanthonyallsaintscanton.org) and St. Bernard (www.stbernardakron.org) offer Hispanic ministries and a Spanish Mass at 1 p.m. Sundays. Each service attract an average of 150 worshippers and helps preserve cultural traditions. Although both communities are diverse and have representation from about a dozen countries, the majority of parishioners are from Mexico (like Lozoya), Guatemala and Honduras.
Patricia and Danny Zaragoza, both 33, of Akron, are among the people who regularly attend the Spanish Mass at St. Bernard. The couple was joyfully optimistic when they learned the new pope hails from Latin America.
“I believe that because he has lived among the people, he can understand better our necessities,” said Danny Zaragoza, who is from Mexico. “Spanish people have a lot of traditions that a lot of people know nothing about, and some traditions are different in different countries.”
His wife Patricia, who is from El Salvador, added, “Because the pope is from our culture, he will know more about our traditions. I think he can help people with a broader understanding of the Church and help them see that we all have the same faith, but sometimes it looks a little different. I like that he seems to be so humble — living with the people. I want to know more about him.”
Since his election, Pope Francis has been portrayed as a pastoral, humble man who can relate to ordinary people.
Cristina Hernandez, 45, of Massillon, hopes that the presence of such a man in Rome will help give Hispanics a new sense of belonging in the Church.
A Gallup survey, released in February, found that Hispanics in America, especially those under age 30, are becoming less Catholic and being drawn to other faith groups. The poll found that the number of Hispanics who identify as Catholic dropped from 58 percent to 54 percent between 2008 and 2012. Hispanics who identify as Protestant rose slightly, from 27 percent to 28 percent during the same time.
“One of my friends said that she will be able to understand what the pope is saying better because he speaks Spanish. That might sound funny, but his being Spanish-speaking may be what some people need to feel more connected,” said Hernandez, a parishioner at St. Anthony/All Saints. “I am hoping he will help the Church become more accepting of people with different backgrounds.”
Hernandez and Patricia Zaragoza said that they also hope the new pontiff can move the Church forward to a place where people come before policies. That move, they said, could include a sharper focus on caring for the poor. It might also include work on social issues.
In whatever direction the church moves under the leadership of Pope Francis, Gustavo Torres is hopeful it will be done in love for the people.
Torres, who is from Mexico and is a parishioner at St. Bernard, said he hopes the pontiff will continue to be an example of humility.
“I think he can help all people learn how to live a life that is holy,” said Torres, 45, of Brimfield Township. “I am very proud that he is from Latin America. It was a big surprise. I never expected the new pope to be Spanish-speaking. I think that we will be closer to him because he is like us. He will help people connect better because of his care for the people.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org