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Hispanics feel connection to Pope Francis on his U.S. tour

Natasha Lindstrom
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament based in Cleveland close their eyes in prayer during The Solemnity of Our Lady of Mercy Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. The Mass was celebrated in Spanish and English as a part of the week of Catholic events and celebrations surrounding the 2015 World Meeting of Families and the nearing visit of Pope Francis to the city.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Tears stream down the face of Puerto Rican-born Julissa Medina, 37, as she whispers a prayer during the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mercy Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in their neighborhood of Overbrook in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. The mass was celebrated in Spanish and English as a part of the week of Catholic events and celebrations surrounding the 2015 World Meeting of Families and the nearing visit of Pope Francis to the city.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Mexican-born Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Isabel Rodriguez (left), 47, and Jeanette Marie Estrada, 50, of Cleveland pray after renewing their religious vows during the The Solemnity of Our Lady of Mercy Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the neighborhood of Overbrook in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Carmen Hardy holds her daughters Brianna (left), 6, and Aaliyah, 8, close as they attend The Solemnity of Our Lady of Mercy Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in their neighborhood of Overbrook in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hardy, of Peurto Rican descent, says her US-born daughters speak no Spanish. The mass was celebrated in Spanish and English as a part of the week of Catholic events and celebrations surrounding the 2015 World Meeting of Families and the nearing visit of Pope Francis to the city.

PHILADELPHIA — The Kennedy family had a strategy for achieving a sense of belonging amid their moves to and across this country: Join a local Catholic church.

“The church has always been the door we knock first for reaching out to people and letting them know that we’re new to the community,” said Kathia Kennedy, 48, of Pine, whose family of four has Latin American roots and stints in Minneapolis, New York and Boston before moving to Western Pennsylvania 12 years ago. “The church is a safe place to go to have individuals with good hearts and good minds.”

The Kennedys’ reliance on a neighborhood parish to ease the transition to a new town reflects that of tens of millions of Hispanic Catholics, who historically have helped the church stave off steep declines in members and now make up 30 to 40 percent of U.S. Catholics.

“The Catholic Church has always been a largely immigrant church,” said Terry Rey, religious professor at Temple University. “Immigrants are quite grateful to have a space for themselves in a land that can be quite hostile to newcomers.”

More recently, however, Hispanics are leaving the Catholic Church in greater numbers — raising the question of whether the first Latin American pope has what it takes to reverse the trend. Pope Francis, a 78-year-old Jesuit from Buenos Aires, Argentina, is using several stops on his three-city tour of the U.S. this week to address Hispanics and some of the issues closest to their hearts, including immigration and poverty.

“He knows the poverty that many Latin American immigrants are feeling when they migrate to the United States of America. It’s one thing for a pope to visit a place, but it’s another to be from there and really internalize it and have it shape you,” Rey said. “He can relate better than a pope who spent most of his time growing up in sheltered monastic compound in Germany.”

As Francis arrived Thursday evening to a roaring crowd outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a few dozen parishioners filed into Our Lady of Lourdes for an understated bilingual Mass in West Philadelphia.

Tears streamed down the face of Julissa Medina, 37, who immigrated to Philadelphia from the Dominican Republic. One pew back, a Carmen Hardy of Puerto Rico sat beside her U.S.-born daughters, 6 and 8, while donning a “Pope Francis” T-shirt beneath her black blazer.

The gray stone church dating to the late-19th century is just a few blocks away from the seminary where Francis will meet privately Sunday morning with his bishops, whom Francis has praised for their outreach to Hispanics nationwide.

“I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings and prosperity,” Francis told hundreds of bishops Wednesday in the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

Hispanics have long shaped the culture of the U.S. Catholic Church, and they still “really represent the future growth of the U.S. Catholic Church,” said Julia Young, Latin American history professor at Catholic University of America.

Yet even as the number of Hispanic priests ordained here climb, relatively few make it to higher levels of leadership. About 10 percent of Catholic bishops leading America’s more than 17,000 parishes identify as Hispanic, Pew Research Center data show.

“A growing number of young priests are Hispanic and Latino, but they have not seen themselves represented in the clergy and in the hierarchy,” Young said.

Fourteen of Francis’ speeches in the U.S. were scheduled to be delivered in his native Spanish. On Saturday, Francis will give a highly anticipated talk on immigration to a ticketed crowd of 10,000 at Independence Hall.

“In 2055, whites will be a minority in this country — I hope Francis speaks to what does that mean and how do we prepare for that day and who do we shape our future Latin leaders,” said Rey, a Hispanic Catholic with immigrant grandparents. “He has the opportunity for really breathe life into very important conversations.”

Yet Rey believes “the downward trajectory of Catholicism in this country is irreversible.” Four in 10 Americans raised Catholic now consider themselves ex-Catholics, Pew data show. The gap in churchgoers widens when singling out younger generations.

Rey says it’s not so much that Americans are no longer religious, but that they’re increasingly turned off by religious institutions. The trend is part of a broader decline in participation in social organizations, such as bowling leagues and fraternal groups. Francis, no matter how popular and charismatic, isn’t likely to upend such a societal shift, said Rey.

“Religions are becoming more about belief and less about belonging,” Rey said.

Yet Francis certainly re-energized the faith of the Kennedys, who were busy packing and ensuring the children finished all their homework as they prepared to make their pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis.

She recalls her family in Costa Rica telling her about the streets filling with people falling to their knees when news broke the Vatican elected its first nonEuropean pope in more than 1,200 years. In the U.S., Kathia Kennedy and her mother, now 84, “literally jumped up and down on the sofa in joy.”

“Instantly, we felt a connection. We felt in sync with how he approaches life,” Kathia Kennedy said.

“We were saying he’s going to teach the world to dance salsa,” she said with a chuckle, then more seriously: “And he’s going to teach the world to be compassionate.”

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