Joseph Tomás McKellar knew he would get a chance to meet Pope Francis. He was at the Vatican last April for a conference on accompaniment that brought together 200 social workers, ministers and organizers. At one point during the meeting, they would all get a chance to greet the pope.
“I was very nervous,” Mr. McKellar, the co-director of Pico California, told America. “I wasn’t sure what to share with him.”
He wanted the pope to know he was with a popular movement, and he decided to present him with a copy of an image of the Blessed Mother that is painted on the wall of his parish, Dolores Mission in Los Angeles. It depicts Mary, carrying baby Jesus, walking on a road from Mexico to Los Angeles.
“She has a determined look on her face,” he said. “She has her arm stretched out, which is like an invitation to walk with her.”
Mr. McKellar read in a book that when the pope was a cardinal in Argentina, he had preferred to be called simply “Padre Jorge.” So that is how Mr. McKellar addressed the pope. “He seemed genuinely engaged,” he said of the image.
But then Mr. McKellar realized he was doing all the talking, so he asked Pope Francis what words of encouragement he could give him to share with his community.
“Stay with the people. Stay close to your people,” the pope said to him in Spanish. “Listen to what the people in your community are yearning for, and allow them to teach you.”
Since then, Mr. McKellar and Dolores Mission have created cards with the image of Mary carrying Jesus to Los Angeles on one side and the pope’s message on the other. “I’ve tried to share these words with as many people as I can, especially in this deeply divided time,” he said.
“Stay with the people. Stay close to your people,” the pope said. “Listen to what the people in your community are yearning for, and allow them to teach you.”
It is hard to overestimate the impact of Francis’ papacy on Latinos living in the United States. As the nation marks Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we asked Latino Catholic leaders how Pope Francis has influenced Catholicism here.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the director of V Encuentro and the assistant director of Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Latino community is moved by the pope’s “pastoral tenderness.” Naturally, a pope from Latin America lives out his faith in a way that resonates with Latin Americans in the United States.
“We identify with someone who is our own,” he said. “Not only the language that he speaks but in the way he teaches. There is a ‘cercania,’ a closeness. He tells priests to ‘smell like the sheep.’ That speaks to the heart of the Hispanic people at the deepest level.”
The V Encuentro is another example of Pope Francis’ influence, Mr. Aguilera-Titus said. Encuentro, which means “Encounter,” is a four-year initiative from the U.S. bishops intended to better serve the growing Latin American community. Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, Mr. Aguilera-Titus and other representatives from the United States recently presented the findings to Pope Francis.
It is hard to overestimate the impact of Francis’ papacy on Latinos living in the United States.
“The V Encuentro is fashioned after ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’” Mr. Aguilera-Titus said, noting the influence of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” The exhortation itself, he said, was influenced by the Fifth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio oversaw the crafting of the Aparecida document.
The V Encuentro involves evangelization, consultation and mission, themes that resonate with Catholics from Latin America, Mr. Aguilera-Titus said. “It was already there, but it wasn’t articulated at the level of the universal church,” he said.
Luis Fraga, the director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, also noted how Pope Francis has brought to light the way Latinos practice their faith, particularly during the pope’s trip to the United States. “Here was a pope who spoke about faith and love and service in a way Latinos live out their own faith today,” he said.
“He tells priests to ‘smell like the sheep.’ That speaks to the heart of the Hispanic people at the deepest level.”
“Latinos practice their faith in a way that’s much more relational,” Mr. Fraga said. “I think there is an identity that many Latino Catholics have with this pope that is deeply cultural in addition to being spiritual.”
In a way, Pope Francis gives the church in the United States an opportunity to welcome the growing number of Latinos. More than 50 percent of Catholics under 18 have a Latin American background. On the other hand, some U.S. Catholics who are less familiar with Latino faith and culture may not understand the way the pope teaches Catholicism, Mr. Fraga said.
Yet Spanish speakers have practiced their faith in what is now the United States since the 1500s, Mr. Fraga said, noting Catholic missions in Florida and in Santa Fe, N.M. “There’s a long-standing presence of Latinos here,” he said.
Nevertheless, migration from Latin America continues to be a controversial topic and one that Pope Francis has not shied away from. “What is happening on our southern border is the greatest oppression of Catholics since the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s,” Mr. Fraga said. “There is a Latino component to it, but there’s also a faith component.”
Pope Francis gives the church in the United States an opportunity to welcome the growing number of Latinos.
Despite division over immigration, Pope Francis gives Latino Catholics in this country hope, according to Ernesto Vega, a coordinator for adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He said the community has “a healthy pride” in the first pope from Latin America.
“But regardless of his country of origin, if they have a pope that is sensitive to the people, the poor, that stresses service—he could be from Africa or Asia, and they would respond,” Mr. Vega said.
Within Latino culture, Mr. Vega noted a pan-American spectrum that includes indigenous cultures. Latin Americans are a mixture of cultures, traditions and races, he said. He believes many of the values emphasized by Pope Francis find their roots in Native American spirituality.
“If you’re sick, your aunt comes over or your grandmother,” he said. “If a baby is born, the entire family visits. That sense of accompaniment is rooted in the culture. People come together, whether it’s because there’s trouble or to celebrate. That’s still true in Latino cultures.”
The attention Pope Francis gives to the poor also resonates, Mr. Vega said, because many immigrants in the United States are coming from countries with corrupt governments that “abuse their power and suppress the voice of their people.”
Ellie Hidalgo called Pope Francis “a community-organizer pope,” noting his grass-roots rather than top-down style of leadership.
“He’s not afraid of saying things, and he comes from a place of truth, love and defense of the poor,” Mr. Vega said.
Pope Francis’ emphasis on the Holy Spirit “in the people, in men and women,” is another connection, he said, “the church is you. You, wherever you go, that’s where holiness can be.”
“The church should not be afraid of the world because the Holy Spirit is in your life,” Mr. Vega said. “Pay attention to the Holy Spirit, not the ways of the world. The Holy Spirit sanctifies everything.”
Ellie Hidalgo, a pastoral associate for Dolores Mission, called Pope Francis “a community-organizer pope,” noting his grass-roots rather than top-down style of leadership. The message the pope gave Mr. McKellar has meant a lot to parishioners.
“It’s such a scary time when you’re actively being scapegoated,” she said. “But Latinos are also resilient. We stay united in our struggles and in our sorrows.”
Pope Francis’ community approach is the same one that is carried out at Dolores Mission, Ms. Hidalgo said, and contrasts with an U.S. culture that is more individualistic.
“Our salvation is not individual. It’s collective,” she said. “We’re going to support one another. We live in community and depend on the group. Francis thinks like that, only at the level of the global community. We’re on this journey together.”