On Tuesday afternoon, a pope from “the ends of the earth,” as Francis described himself when he was elected, will set foot in the United States for the first time in his life. At age 78, he has been in no hurry to get here. Unlike the “airport bishops” whom he has often criticized, Jose Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires that was, rarely left his own archdiocese. And when he did, he always seemed anxious to get back to “la mi esposa,” as he said frequently, “my wife” — referring to the belief of the early church that a bishop was married to his diocese and dare not leave her.
So Francis comes to us a stranger to a strange land. Or maybe not.
Numbers just released by the Pew Foundation indicate that the face of Catholic America is changing. We have gone back to our roots as an immigrant church. Only those immigrants, unlike the first waves of Irish, Italian, German and Polish Catholics, today hail from Mexico and Central and South America. More than 25% of adult Catholics are foreign-born; another 15% have a parent who was foreign-born; and more of these foreign-born American Catholics are Latino than any other group. Latinos now make up more than one-third of American Catholics. As the churches of those first immigrant groups in the Northeast are emptying, the churches in the South and Southwest are filling up with Spanish-speaking newcomers.
The first pope from the Southern Hemisphere will, then, encounter an American church that linguistically and culturally is more and more like him; he will be among his own. And you don’t need to take the Pew Foundation’s word for it.
The Vatican, in a master stroke of public relations, decided that the pope would hold a “virtual audience” with people from those parts of the country that Francis will not visit. The virtual audiences that Francis held via teleconference hookup were with students from Cristo Rey, a Jesuit High School in Chicago; people from homeless shelters in Los Angeles; and recent immigrants at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, close to the border with Mexico. Everyone the pope addressed individually in his virtual audience was of Latin American origin.
In the audience at Cristo Rey, the pope talked to Ricardo Ortiz about persevering in life after losing a college scholarship because he is an undocumented immigrant. At the Los Angeles shelter, he spoke encouragingly to Rosemary Farfan, a single mother of two, telling her to be proud. At McAllen, he ignored the priests in the crowd (and at least one unidentified person wearing a bishop’s beanie) to praise Sister Norma Pimental’s work with immigrants, illegal and otherwise.
During his real-world visit, Francis will continue heeding Catholics without high position in American society. Among the pomp and pageantry of his stops on the East Coast, he will take time to visit the beneficiaries of Catholic charities in Washington, prison inmates in Philadelphia and students at an East Harlem Catholic grade school in New York.
These are folks, as Francis would say, on the peripheries. With these people, Francis shows no surprise at the problems and tragedies of life; he is completely at ease. The connection that Francis had with the crowds in his virtual audiences was palpable. When this pope speaks about the effects of the global economy on the poor, the poor understand him. When he speaks about the needs of immigrants, they understand him.
There is, however, a segment of American Catholicism that appears to feel left behind, that seems bewildered and uncomfortable: the prosperous church of those who have arrived — the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those first waves of European immigrants.
The church of the arrived does not understand Francis, or chooses not to understand him. When a Catholic politician says Francis is not an economist, or an immigration specialist or an ecologist, and that when the pope speaks about these things we are free to ignore him, that Catholic politician is speaking for the “haves” — those Catholics who do not want to lose what they have.
Francis is speaking to and for those who have not. And his message is that they count, we have duties toward them in Christ, and we can no longer remain indifferent. In his actions, the pope is heralding an end to the Americanized, individualized version of Catholicism, responsible only to God and oneself.
Francis will go back to Rome on Sunday, but his message — and those Latino Catholics who have come here from the peripheries, to whom he feels so close — will remain. The church of the arrived ignores them at its moral and political peril.
Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is dean emeritus and a professor of law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh.