Our Catholic Hemisphere
The relationship between the United States and Mexico, in particular, is pivotal to the future of the Americas. On our shared border the global north meets the global south and Latin America merges with its more Anglicized neighbor to the north.
The Americas, not unlike Africa, are key to the future of Christianity. In Europe Christianity has undergone a swift decline, but in the Americas, despite significant challenges, Christianity is still strong. Each country in the hemisphere has deep Catholic roots, planted primarily by the Spanish, French and Portugese. Like Latin America, the United States also has Catholic roots in its Southwest and in particular states like Florida, Maryland, Louisiana and Vermont. Canada has them especially in Quebec, giving each country a common spiritual bond with others in the hemisphere.
Sharing a Common Spiritual Heritage
Consider that in the United States Catholics form the largest single faith group in Congress, with 29 percent of the members of the House and Senate; that one in four persons in the population is Catholic; that every Sunday pews at Mass fill with a rapidly growing number of Hispanic Catholics. Hispanics are our fellow parishioners. In the Knights of Columbus, Hispanics are our brother knights. (As early as 1905 we established a council in Mexico City.)
In Mexico President Felipe Calderón, a Catholic daily communicant, leads a country of some 90 million Catholics (the second largest Catholic nation in the world, after Brazil; the U.S. ranks third). They, and we, share far more than we sometimes realize. In both countries, Catholics have had to struggle for their rightful place in society during the 20th century. Burning crosses greeted New York States Governor Al Smith when his train rolled into Oklahoma City during the presidential campaign of 1928, and not until 1960 did the United States elect its first Catholic president. In Mexico, an anti-clerical government martyred priests and laymen throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was not until the 1990s that laws were overturned that prohibited priests from wearing clerical garb in public. The acceptance and subsequent growth of Catholics in both countries shows that the Catholic laity has come into its own. It now has a unique chance to shape the future of the Americas unencumbered by past prejudices.
We also share a patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Known since 1945 as Empress of the Americas, she is a special patron to all Catholics, especially those in Mexico. In his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II noted:
The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole continent. America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting-pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization. Consequently, not only in Central and South America, but in North America as well, the Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated as Queen of all America.
Marys patronage of churches and families throughout the hemisphere goes back hundreds of years, and today she affords us a new starting point. Although during these centuries she has come to symbolize many things, in the light of Ecclesia in America, hers is a message of unity. She is a spiritual mother we all share.
Sharing One Future
If our continental history is a shared one, so too is our future. David Rieff pointed out in The New York Times Magazine (December 2006) just how interwoven our collective future is, noting, Nationally, Hispanics account for 39 percent of the Catholic populationsince 1960 they have accounted for 71 percent of new Catholics in the United States. At a time when church attendance is faltering across Europe and in some U.S. cities, it thrives in places Hispanic immigrants call home. Cooperation between Catholics in the United States and Mexico will be crucial to the future of relations between these two countries, and by extension to all of the Americas. From the halls of government to the parish pews, the willingness and ability of Catholics to build bridges between people in the United States and those in Mexico will shape our future.
At the 1997 Assembly for America of the World Synod of Bishops, the bishops of the hemisphere invited Catholics to rethink who they are as Americans: We believe that we are one community; and, although America comprises many nations, cultures and languages, there is so much that links us together and so many ways in which each of us affects the lives of our neighbors.
That meeting was an excellent model of cooperation among the bishops, but the challenge to the church includes all the baptized. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia in America, The renewal of the church in America will not be possible without the active presence of the laity. Therefore, they are largely responsible for the future of the church. That is no overstatement.
The question is, What can Catholicslay and clergy alikedo to advance the promise of Ecclesia in America? That promise is based on the truth that our unity in the sacramental life of the church transcends every national border and joins us in a way that has both profound and practical consequences.
Promoting Catholic Initiatives
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is the view by many in the United States that Hispanic immigration is to be feared. Of all people, Catholics should have no trouble remembering that the same thing was said of the Irish and Italian immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Few today would contest the contributions made by those immigrants who not only became assimilated, but who also breathed dynamic life into the Catholic Church in the United States.
Those fearful of immigrants often think that immigration brings crime. Catholics ought to realizeand help spread the messagethat a poor family seeking a better life is no threat. Furthermore, the lack of any rational immigration process and a system that criminalizes both the economic migrant and the narcotics trafficker are of little help. President Calderón has lost no time in dealing with the drug cartels in Mexico. Whatever immigration policy we end up with in the United States must complement the work Mexico is undertaking in dealing with crime, while taking into consideration the economic motivation that drives Hispanic immigration.
For us Catholics in the United States, Hispanic immigration brings a unique benefit: the promise of parish revitalization. It is up to the Catholics already in the United States to provide a rich spiritual environment that will feed the new arrivals. As they breathe new life into parish communities, it is our job to help them to become assimilated into our parishes and communities, as our parents and grandparents did, and to help them to live out their faith with support from all Catholics.
It was not long ago that Catholics in the United States rallied to support their persecuted Mexican brothers and sisters and helped put an end to the terrifying persecution there. Voices such as the Knights of Columbus and America helped Catholics in the United States to influence their government to take an active interest in the persecution going on in Mexico 80 years ago. When the Cristero struggle against the Mexican governments repression of Catholic observances ended in 1929, it was the active involvement and cooperation of Catholics on both sides of the border that made peace possible.
Moreover, during the 1920s, when up to a million Mexican refugees fled north, American Catholics opened their arms to those displaced by the violence. They built seminaries so that young Mexicans could study for the priesthood in the safety of the United States. Mexican exiles, from archbishops to humble rancheros, received assistance here and in Mexico. It is again time for such leadership.
AModel of Cooperation
One model for cooperation between the Catholics of the United States and Mexico is that of the Knights of Columbus. Founded in 1882 in New Haven, Conn., the Knights rapidly expanded throughout the hemisphere. Canadian councils were founded in 1897, Mexican councils in 1905. The Knights are just one example of cooperation between Catholics on both sides of the border, one that has continued for more than a century. Cooperation has taken many different forms. In the 1920s it included bringing the story of the Mexican persecution to the people of the United States. More recently, it has taken the form of giving seminarians from the United States an opportunity to study in Mexico and to learn about Mexican culture. It has also meant supporting Mexican seminarians who serve the needs of Mexican immigrants in the United States and the support of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Today, local Knights of Columbus councils along the border actively work together in Mexico and the United States in social, spiritual and charitable projects. Increasing such cooperation is a high priority of the Knights of Columbus, as it should be for other Catholic organizations.
Catholics on both sides of the border must promote a Catholic solution to the problems of poverty and economic and educational opportunities for the poor of the region, especially in Mexico. This is a special responsibility of Catholics in the United Statesespecially leaders in business and finance. President Calderóns election provides an unprecedented opportunity in the history of Mexico for economic and social reform. He should receive the active support of Catholics in the United States as well as those in Mexico.
In his encyclical God Is Love, Pope Benedict wrote, Within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life. His words have special meaning for those who share the same continent. Our hemisphere is indeed a microcosm of the globalization process occurring worldwide. What happens in America will have a profound effect on the church and the world, and what happens between the United States and Mexico will shape the future of this hemisphere. Catholics in both countries have reason to work for a day when such close neighbors are even closer friends. Throughout America, each of us should answer the call of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and integrate persons of every race and culture into one spiritual family.
In most of the countries of our hemisphere, between 70 and 95 percent of the population is Catholic. In the United States, one in every four is Catholic. If we Catholics were to view Hispanic immigrants as brothers and sisters in faith, and if we were to share that vision with the rest of our country, we could significantly shape the future of the church, the country, the continent and the hemisphere.