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For Hispanic Catholics, a pope close to their reality

Members of the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano Católico, a

Members of the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano Católico, a lay group of Hispanic Catholics, lead a service in Copiague on Sept. 13, 2015. Many in the Latino community are excited about Pope Francis' visit to the area and some are planning to visit him in both Pennsylvania and New York City. Credit: Johnny Milano

The beat of merengue music filled the room as couples, some with their children, arrived in a Copiague church's basement decorated with colorful balloons. But this was no ordinary family party on a Sunday afternoon.

The dozens were gathered to celebrate their joy in faith and profess a belief repeated in the Spanish-language refrain of the song -- familia que reza unida, jamás será destruida. A family that prays together, the lyrics went, will never be torn asunder.

Theirs was a meeting of the faithful from the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano Católico, a lay group of Hispanic Catholics. They came together Sept. 13 at Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church to launch another year of dialogue on family issues, guided by the words of Pope Francis and the wisdom of church doctrine.

Luz Marina González, the group's coordinator in western Suffolk, welcomed the participants, saying in Spanish that they were united in "searching for a better life as people, as families and as a community."

Many of those in the room plan to be among the crowds filling buses, carpooling or riding public transportation to see Francis when he visits the United States this week, group organizers said.

The Hispanic community in parishes across Long Island has been abuzz with expectation since the pope's visit was announced, diocese lay leaders said. Many hundreds tried to enter a raffle for tickets to the Mass that Francis will celebrate in Madison Square Garden on Friday. Others sought tickets on their own or through church groups for an outdoor Mass in Philadelphia on Sept. 27 that is expected to attract 1.5 million people.

Pope Francis' trip to the United States, said González, "is a very important occasion" for Latinos, who see an affirmation of their faith in the selection of the first Latin American pontiff in the church's history.

"It's not the same to listen to a message where you understand a few words, than to be there and receive a message that comes to you in your own language," González added. "For us Hispanics, this is a great source of pride and a blessing."

The Rev. Gonzalo Oajaca spoke to those at the family meeting, encouraging them to dedicate themselves to serving others, as Pope Francis has shown them. He said in Spanish that they were all called "to turn our lives into an example for society, and this is something that the pope is inviting us to do."

The excitement that arose in the community when the Argentine Jesuit was named pope in 2013 has only grown as católicos have heard the pontiff both speak Spanish and envision a church that is closer to the neediest and to immigrants everywhere.

Yanira Chacón-López, an outreach coordinator for the Spanish-speaking ministry Casa Johanna at St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in Westbury, said she has been fielding inquiries for months from parishioners who are eager to see the pope.

Hispanics in the parish, which has three Spanish-language Masses every week, have been calling and texting to ask her about attending the events. Many responded to a notice in a church bulletin that said they must submit their names for a raffle.

The number of Latinos vying for the spots, she said, "is definitely in the hundreds from this parish alone."

The Diocese of Rockville Centre did not respond to inquiries about the community's fervor for the pope's visit. However, lay leaders said many Latinos are more than well-represented among thousands of parishioners seeking access to the Mass at Madison Square Garden.

Their response comes as no surprise for those who have been watching the growth of the Latino community within the church here and elsewhere. An estimated 30.4 million people in the United States identify as Hispanic Catholics, according to surveys by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit at Georgetown University.

Latinos accounted for about 40 percent of all growth in U.S. Catholic parishes between 2005 and 2010, the surveys showed, and are part of more than 4,500 parishes that have significant Hispanic populations. While many are lay leaders, they are underrepresented in the church hierarchy of nuns, priests and diocesan posts.

"The Catholic Church would be decreasing in numbers of adherents if it wasn't for Latinos," said Timothy Matovina, a theology professor and co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "They are not just the future. They are the present of the Catholic Church" in the United States.

Pope Francis' visit, said Matovina, is a significant "historic moment" for a community with immigrant roots at the core of many parishes.

"People are going to feel this very, very deeply," Matovina said. "The most marginal people, the people who feel kind of most put aside by the world around them, to see one of their own speaking to them of the compassion, the mercy and the love of Christ in their own language, it's just hard to exaggerate what this is going to mean to people, how much this is going to move their souls and their hearts."

Brentwood residents Margarita and Alberto Román, lay leaders in the family movement group, have been preparing for the visit with prayer and study of Francis' words.

Alberto Román, 55, a supervisor's assistant at a machine shop, has gone so far as to start on a Spanish translation of the pope's "Laudato Si" encyclical. Both plan to attend the Mass in Philadelphia, and Alberto is waiting to hear about tickets to the Madison Square Garden service.

For those in the church, "we see much faith and much hope" in Francis' visit -- and a chance to bring back those who have left the church, he said. "The pope at this moment is putting new emphasis on our values as Christians."

Margarita Román, 51, a driver's assistant for a school bus company, said it's "a privilege for us to have the pope visit the United States" and "an inspiration for those of us who are involved in the church."

Both natives of Colombia, they've lived on Long Island for more than 25 years and say the church has helped them feel at home here. She is a naturalized citizen and he is a permanent resident.

That's not to say that all Latinos will be listening to every word the pope utters.

Eliezer Reyes, pastor of the Iglesia Pentecostal de Hempstead, said the visit will be interesting to him as an observer and a student of religion, but not so for the nearly 200 members of his Spanish-speaking evangelical Christian congregation, who question papal authority and are not exactly captivated by Francis' charisma.

"There's very strong sentiment against the role of the pope, and they really don't respect him as a legitimate representative of Peter and the successor of Christ," Reyes said.

The visit, he added, is "insignificant for them and, if anything, it's seen as a menace to the goals of Pentecostal proselytism" in his church community.

While the number of Hispanic Catholics has grown steadily as their population has increased, so has the number of those who switch allegiance or have no religious affiliation.

Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, said that while it's difficult to predict how trends will play out, "the most common religious affiliation among Hispanics in the U.S. continues to be Catholicism, so if the Hispanic population continues to grow as a share of the U.S. population, the Hispanic share of all U.S. Catholics could continue to grow as well."

The pope's popularity with Hispanic Catholics also rests in his embrace of humility, his closeness to the poor and his understanding of Latin America. His recent beatification of Father Óscar Arnulfo Romero, an archbishop of San Salvador assassinated in 1980 as he denounced poverty and social injustices in the region, has inspired more devotion among many Salvadorans, who constitute Long Island's largest Hispanic subgroup.

Francis' calls for a more merciful approach toward migrants and refugees resonates deeply in a community where many are struggling to earn permanent legal status.

"We're praying hard for him, because in such a short time he's touched so many lives," Chacón-López said. "Everything that he's been doing, that we see at a distance, is coming to us as something that is close to our reality."

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