Immigrants attending Mass at the Church of St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays know they can hear the Word of God in Spanish every Sunday at 4 p.m. in this part of the Hamptons, crowded with the season's beachgoers and vineyard tourists.
On a recent afternoon, they listened as the Rev. Marvin Navas told of Pope Francis' trip to South America in July and the work the pope is doing to guide and heal the faithful. The pontiff, he noted, asked for forgiveness for the sins the church had committed against the immigrants' ancestors in their native lands.
"I don't know if you saw when the pope spoke, the masses who followed him, how he said with humility, 'Yes, we have sinned,' " Navas marveled. Despite history's failings, he told them, "the Lord is our justice" in the church.StoryVatican: Pope to visit Ground ZeroPhotosPope Francis through the yearsSee alsoComplete coverage
Francis will shower attention upon immigrants such as those at St. Rosalie's when he comes to the United States next month -- and will speak directly, and most often in Spanish, to this growing constituency in the American church. He is expected to raise the issue of migration during his travels from the nation's capital to New York City and Philadelphia, as he has in pronouncements since rising to the papacy in 2013.
His interest in the issue is more than a gesture for a church with not only a significant following in immigrant communities, but also a history and doctrine rooted in migration, said Donald Kerwin Jr., executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York. The Manhattan think tank with Catholic roots was founded by the Scalabrinian Fathers, a congregation that arrived in New York as Italians settled here in the late 1800s.
The stories of the Jews' exile and Exodus of the Old Testament, of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and of Jesus' mission for the Apostles to spread the faith build a narrative of "core migration," Kerwin said. The church in the United States grew into a major institution, he added, from being a minority faith in the colonies as waves of immigrants -- among them Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians and, currently, Latin Americans -- joined the worship.
"Migration is a sacred thing in this tradition," Kerwin said. "Jesus identified in a very radical way with the stranger when he said, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me.' Catholics are taught their salvation depends in part on how they treat newcomers."
The immigrant faithful
A 2014 national survey by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., found that four in 10 Catholics are from immigrant households -- either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.
Clergy and churchgoers doing the church's advocacy work on the issue are optimistic that in putting immigrants front and center, the pope will make their plight relevant to more Catholics, striking a merciful tone that will temper political discord on the matter.
"The pope has come to unify us as a people," Miguel Flores, 43, a Salvadoran immigrant at the Mass in Hampton Bays, said in Spanish. Acting as proclaimer of the Word during the service, he led the prayer for el Papa Francisco y nuestro obispo William -- the pope and Long Island's Bishop William Murphy.
Flores came to the United States illegally about 15 years ago and has since gained temporary protected status, allowing him to work without fear of deportation. He makes a living trimming trees and caring for hedges in the Hamptons. As someone hoping to earn full legal residency, he is enthusiastic about the pope speaking for his rights.
"When we migrate here, one of the few things we bring across the border is our faith," Flores said. "Thanks to his strength as a Latin American pope, we feel closer to the church, we feel more welcome in the church . . . I would like for him to be emphatic about us needing full immigration reform and not temporary fixes."
Pope's welcoming stance
Francis has given no indication of what he will say, but the matter is on his agenda and in previous statements he has sided with welcoming immigrants.
Kevin Appleby, migration policy director for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said, "What we do know from his record is that it's an issue close to his heart" and "one of the issues central to his papacy."
In a message issued in August 2013 for last year's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the pope staked his claim in the debate: "Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity," he said, and should be accorded "their human dignity" in the countries where they reside.
"A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone," Francis said then, "moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization -- all typical of a throwaway culture -- towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world."
The pope echoed that message for the same occasion last September in a message that said, "It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation."
Though Latinos make up the majority of immigrants in the country -- and in the church -- parishes on Long Island and elsewhere have learned to speak in the diversity of voices in which their adherents pray. The Pew national survey shows small percentages of European and Asian population groups among Catholics with immigrant roots.
Advocacy on LI, nationwide
On Long Island, Spanish-language Masses abound from western Nassau County congregations such as the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Valley Stream to the easternmost Church of St. Therese of Lisieux in Montauk. The roster of Mass times on the Diocese of Rockville Centre's website includes services in Haitian Creole, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Vietnamese.
The church's immigration focus is at the root of its identity, said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of the Archdiocese of New York's Catholic Charities, which is involved in coordinating one of the pope's events in New York City.
"The church in the United States for centuries has been an immigrant church," Sullivan said. "At present it is an immigrant church. In the future it will be an immigrant church."
Accordingly, the church in the United States has continued its national advocacy for reforms that would protect immigrants and open up legal avenues to live and work in the country.
The bishops' conference has advocated, among other policies, an earned legalization program leading to eventual citizenship for immigrants here illegally, a worker visa program allowing more immigrants to enter legally and an increase in family visas for relatives of those granted permanent residency or citizenship.
Francis "will likely pull no punches on the issue," Appleby said, and his message "could help reignite the immigration debate in this country in a positive way. At a minimum, it will help change the atmosphere."
There will be several opportunities for Francis to speak out, in addition to his Sept. 23 meeting with President Barack Obama and the first lady and his speech in front of Congress the following day.
While in Washington, the pope will visit a Catholic Charities program that serves poor and homeless people and also assists immigrants. He will meet with recent immigrants at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem on Sept. 25. The next day, he will speak at Independence Mall in Philadelphia in front of a crowd that will include an immigrant contingent, with Francis addressing religious liberty and immigration.
The gathering in East Harlem, a largely Hispanic neighborhood, will be his main event with immigrants, Sullivan said.
Francis will meet with about 150 immigrants, among them refugees from various nations, day laborers who seek work in city streets, Central American children who came to the United States illegally as unaccompanied minors, Dreamers brought to this country illegally as children, and immigrant mothers.
The pope will "informally just greet and talk" with them, pray with them and bless them, Sullivan said.
"My hope and my prayer is that Pope Francis' presence and his meeting and blessing of immigrants and refugees will renew the conversation about how good immigration reform is in the best interests of all of the people of the United States, including but not limited to the newcomers," Sullivan said.
Long Island advocates hope the pope's intervention will get more parishes in Nassau and Suffolk to put the issue on their agenda.
"The state of immigration in terms of the church's involvement on Long Island is very subtle," said Sister Rosalie Carven, social justice coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood. "I'd like to think that in addition to helping individuals regularize their status, and finding ways to support their human needs, I would like to see more effort to let the Catholic community at large become involved in immigration reform and legislative issues."
She hopes that congregations, energized over the pope's recent "Laudato Si" encyclical on the environment, will consider social issues part of their mandate. In the document, Francis speaks of "a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation."
"We shouldn't be afraid to welcome immigrants, because they are a gift to us," Carven said. "If we could get over our xenophobic attitudes, we would start seeing immigrants as a resource for our communities and our country."
The Rev. Bill Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch, which holds Masses in Spanish and Haitian Creole, hopes the pope's message reaches people who haven't seen their connection to immigration.
"For someone like Pope Francis, it's a moment to maybe contextualize it all, say that these are not disjointed activities" that lead to immigration, but to see that "the United States is very much behind the reasons why there are poor people" in underdeveloped nations, Brisotti said.
"We have to look at the global effects of all of our actions -- the way why people are poor and the way why people have to leave their places and come here," he said.
Hopes for feeling 'peace'
Outside of the policy debate, area churches have adapted to embrace immigrants.
Ministries including Centro Corazón de María, which serves Latino immigrants in Hampton Bays, have sprouted to offer English classes, build literacy skills and host workshops on issues ranging from nutrition to financial planning.
Knowing they have Pope Francis on their side could give immigrants a stronger sense of belonging in their parishes, said Sister Mary Beth Moore, assistant coordinator at the Hampton Bays ministry.
"It brings the immigrant community hope and it validates their claim to dignity," she said, despite a "very harsh" discourse in which "the legitimacy of immigrants in the United States has been called into question by the children and grandchildren of immigrants."
Just having the pope speak to them fills them with hope, said immigrants at the Hampton Bays church service.
"We give thanks to God that we have this messenger of the Lord . . . so that most of us immigrants could feel that peace he brings," said Manuel Jarrín, 55, a Southampton resident who works as a chef's assistant.
Lupe Orellana, 49, coordinates the Spanish-language charismatic prayer group in Hampton Bays. The Southampton hair stylist said she plans to take a bus to attend the pope's Mass in Philadelphia -- to see and hear him for herself.
"It will be a great source of joy," Orellana said, calling Pope Francis' words "like a message direct to our hearts."