New pope 'an inspiration' to LI Hispanics

Violeta Torrejon from North Babylons pray during a Violeta Torrejon from North Babylons pray during a Latino Charismatic Prayer service held at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch. (March 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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José Flores was stocking food in a refrigerator at the food distribution company where he works when the text messages from family and friends started arriving last week to let him know that a pope had been selected and that he would soon speak.

Then his son texted him a photo of the new pontiff: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina.

Flores, an Amityville resident from El Salvador who is a prayer group coordinator at his Wyandanch church, could not contain the joy at learning that a pope had emerged from Latin America.

"I was screaming and I was jumping up and down and even tears came out," Flores, 40, said in Spanish. "In giving us a Latin American pope we received a blessing for the church in the whole world, but especially for the Latino community."

While the new pope is not from one of the countries that contribute the most immigrants to the United States, the selection of Papa Francisco -- as Pope Francis is known in Spanish -- was seen by Flores and other area Hispanics as an affirmation of their place in the life of the church.

"I personally thought it had to be a Latin American pope, only because we are the future of the church," said Margarita Grasing, a Catholic from Cuba and director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, a nonprofit community group. "Logically, if the church doesn't start looking at us, they are going to lose us," Grasing said, speaking about a proliferation of "many little churches" that have found a niche in pursuing Latinos.

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Latinos, who have come to account for 31 percent of the nation's 75 million Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center's 2012 estimates, have invigorated the U.S. church and represent a younger demographic that has kept the church from losing ground.

On Long Island they're believed to account for at least a quarter of the 1.7 million Catholics who make up the Diocese of Rockville Centre, one of the largest in the United States -- making Spanish-language Masses a must in many communities and spurring the establishment of Hispanic ministry programs at 55 out of 134 parishes.

'Great jubilation'Back in Wyandanch, Flores was one of more than 60 people attending a charismatic prayer meeting at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church that same day the pope had been selected. The evening gathering had turned into a spiritual celebration.

Churchgoers shared the good news, told of where they had been when they found out, prayed a rosary in Pope Francis' name and raised their hands in song and praise, showing what lay preacher Carlos Rubio, a guest speaker from Patchogue, described as "great jubilation."

"We have a pope, a Latin American pope, and today we as Latinos, as believers, should rejoice and unite more than ever as a people of faith," Rubio, 45, told the crowd that clapped and shouted amens. "We know that we are growing as a people. . . . We are Latino Roman Catholics for the glory of God!"

The reaction among Hispanics in the United States has been "similar to what happened in Poland when John Paul II was elected," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who presides over the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., and chairs the board of the Catholic Relief Services agency that does charitable work in Latin America.

"For even the larger community of Latinos around the world this comes as a source of joy and delight," Kicanas said. "He will be a marvelous model for us of what the church has to be."

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Closer identificationThe stories about Pope Francis' humble demeanor and outreach to the poor also had some Catholic Latinos praying that he would bring the church closer to their community and to urgent issues that affect them.

Yanira Chacón, a bilingual outreach coordinator for St. Brigid's Parish in Westbury, is hopeful that Pope Francis' understanding of Latin America would translate into more church involvement on immigration advocacy and assistance to the poor.

"We feel joyful and identified with the pope," Chacón said. "I am hoping this would help to soften people's hearts within our church and in all of the community so that we are not seen as immigrant invaders but as part of the future," Chacón said.

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Whether the pope's roots would impact church policies beyond instilling cultural pride is something that remains to be seen in how he manages the church, said Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"He will be an inspiration. He will be a motivator but it's not a cure-all for all the difficulties that Latinos face in the church or in society," Matovina said. "For many Latinos to hear the Holy Father address them in Spanish, in his native tongue, will be very emotional."

But one way to measure more significant progress for Latinos within the church, said Matovina, would be whether Pope Francis appoints bishops who are close to the community or come from its ranks, saying those decisions are "the most influential actions" the pope makes at the diocese level.

Even if it's too early to tell how Pope Francis' church will affect the community, it was already evident that many Hispanic Catholics saw in him someone who knows and understands them well, said Sister Margaret Smyth, who leads the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, a ministry focusing on immigrants in Riverhead.

"Many of the immigrants here are the poor he speaks about," Smyth said. "My biggest hope is the tone he sets trickles down . . . because whatever the pope says on respect and dignity for the human being has an impact" on the church's work in society.

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