Huberto Vazquez of Fort Wayne says that when he first heard that Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, he felt muy contento – very happy.
Like many Hispanic Catholics, he didn’t think he would ever see a Spanish-speaking pope from a Latin American country – someone, in other words, much like himself.
I was joyful not only because he was Latin American, but also because he was also very kind and very humble, says Vazquez, a leader of a bustling Spanish-language charismatic prayer group at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne.
I like his humbleness – that he is a man of humility. The words that most inspired me are that he wants a poor church, for the poor, because, face it, that’s what most Latin Americans are.
As the church enters the 21st century, both Vazquez and the man who chose to be known as Pope Francis are reflections of new realities, both worldwide and in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
In 2010, nearly 40 percent of the world’s Catholics lived in Latin American and Caribbean nations, with nearly three in four people there claiming Catholicism, according to a 2011 report by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion in Public Life.
In the United States, just less than half of Catholics younger than 40 are of Hispanic origin and migration from Latin American countries is widely credited as sustaining the church’s numbers here, the report says.
Locally, it’s not known how many Catholics claim Hispanic ties, says Sean McBride, diocesan spokesman. But the numbers are growing, he says, as are efforts to increase ministry to and by those who speak Spanish or have Hispanic heritage.
As early as the late 1980s, the diocese’s late bishop, the Rev. John M. D’Arcy, saw the need to minister to increasing numbers of area Hispanics. By 1991, he had overseen the founding of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Warsaw, and then money raised in a diocesewide campaign was used to build a new parish church dedicated in 2005. The parish now has about 300 families, diocesan officials say.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is named for a 16th-century apparition of a pregnant Virgin Mary to a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, now a saint. Officially designated as Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe is widely beloved by Mexicans, who believe she protects them from harm and intercedes on their behalf, and others from Latin America.
Indeed, says Enid Roman-De Jesus, director of the diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry since its inception in 2001, few diocesan parishes are without Hispanic members, whether in urban areas such as South Bend or Fort Wayne or rural communities such as Plymouth or Granger.
Thirteen have a formal Hispanic ministry program, many have Hispanics on staff as program directors and the diocese’s first formal blueprint for Hispanic ministry will be released as early as next month. McBride says the diocese is working on an automatic translation feature for its website and officials are discussing starting radio programs in Spanish.
At least 14 priests are Hispanic or speak fluent Spanish, De Jesus says, including the diocese’s bishop since 2011, the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades.
D’Arcy requested to his superiors that his successor speak the language, McBride says.
Rhoades studied and worked in Spain and learned more Spanish ministering to migrant workers and other Hispanics in his former diocese in Harrisburg, Pa.
I learned it on the job, Rhoades says. It was really through immersion and practice with the people.
De Jesus says Rhoades made a point from early on of participating in Hispanic celebrations.
About 1,200 people attended the first Spanish-language Mass he said at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in South Bend, she says.
He stayed with them afterward and mingled with them, she says. We got a bishop who could really speak to the people and relate to them so well. He is so kind, and his knowledge of Spanish is really good. People, they took to Bishop Rhoades almost immediately.
De Jesus says many Hispanics also feel that way about the new pope, whom they call El Papa, or Holy Father.
It was very exciting for us. The pope is such an important figure. He speaks not only to and for the church, but he is a power also to influence governments, she says.
He knows our spirit, and our history and our values, she adds, noting that she hopes the new pope will address issues such as immigration reform, the disparity of wealth between rich and poor in Latin American countries, and the need to encourage church participation by Hispanics.
To have a pope who understands all this, and how we have fought through history to keep the values of our Catholic tradition, is really amazing, she said.
After a Spanish Mass at St. Patrick’s last week – led by a Vietnamese priest fluent in the language – Yesmin Reyes of Fort Wayne says she is hopeful about Pope Francis, known for maintaining a simple lifestyle and ministry to the poor in his Diocese of Buenos Aires.
He’s a good person. I hope he pays attention to all the people, she says holding her 20-month-old baby. For the future.
Which is exactly where Vazquez is looking, too.
A father of three sons who emigrated from southern Mexico seven years ago and now works at Superior Essex, he says he recalls how the prayer group, which attracted about 200 people for a Children’s Day celebration last week, prayed for wisdom for the new pope.
He says the new pope not only has stood with the materially poor but realizes that many people are spiritually impoverished.
I am hoping and wanting that my children at a young age will know God’s love through the church, he adds.
Wearing a large crucifix on a leather cord, Vazquez smiles. In fact two of them are already saying, I want to be a priest.’