Pope Francis’ visit to border is strategic, both for Latinos and the Vatican

Signs of Pope Francis’ future visit to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are visible throughout the city, from billboards to shop posters. Francis will be in the city on Feb. 17. (Photo by Miguel Otárola/Cronkite News)

EL PASO, Texas — On a crisp fall afternoon last September, Pope Francis stood at Independence Mall in Philadelphia and delivered a message that resonated among not just the faithful, but Hispanics especially.

Speaking only in Spanish and in a calm Argentine accent, he directly mentioned the Latinos in the audience:

“You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” Francis said to erupting cheers. “Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood.”

Latinos hope this message of American diversity resonates firmly during Francis’ visit to the U.S.-Mexico border next week. But it’s a message that goes both ways: immigrants need the pope, and the Vatican needs immigrants to ensure the Catholic base expands.

The number of Latino Catholics in the U.S. has continued to dwindle in recent years. While 67 percent of Latinos in the U.S. identified as Catholic in 2010, that number fell to 55 percent in 2014. Nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic adults are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center.

On the other hand, two other groups — evangelical Protestants and the unaffiliated — are quickly growing in size.

Benjamin Alire Saenz, a writer and ex-Catholic priest who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, believes part of the Catholic church’s slump was that its push on more conservative messages, including its stance on homosexuality, were not of direct concern for people in the border region.

“When you had a conservative church hitting upon these issues that are incredibly, quite frankly, a concern to people who don’t live on week-to-week, day-to-day existence, it wasn’t reaching the populace that lives on the border,” Saenz said.

Strategically, the El Paso-Juarez region, a border metroplex of more than 2.2 million people — a population that’s 80.3 percent Latino — makes sense for the pope to end his six-day journey. The border is a place for reinvention, and the Catholic Church is no exception.

“The church has always been very clear about its stance on the immigrants. And that is that you welcome the immigrant,” Saenz said. “But that kind of message seemed to get lost.”

Francis’ talking points are more relatable — they touch on poverty, the decline of violence and corruption, and the rights of workers and immigrants. This directly affects many Latinos in the Southwest; Saenz calls his visit “a brilliant move” because of that.

“I think he would be welcomed in other communities because he’s a head of state and celebrity,” Saenz said. “But for the people of the border, he’s much more than that.”

His visit is being billed as “Two Nations, One Faith” in El Paso. Mexico still boasts the second-largest number of Catholics in the world, and Catholicism is still the faith of the majority of people in the border metroplex. Catholic tradition is prominent throughout the region.

Mark J. Seitz, the bishop for the Diocese of El Paso, says Francis pushes a message of interfaith dialogue, not one of Catholic superiority.

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Amalia Reyes, 50, lived in Juárez for 22 years but now resides in Tucson. Like many other Catholics in El Paso or Juárez, she hopes the biggest message Francis pushes is one of peace, to continue making the border region a more stable place to live.

“I hope he tells the people that can influence change in Juárez to do something,” Reyes said. “Something for more security for everyone living in Juárez, whether they live there or not.”

Frances Altamarino, 26, is a dancer in the Danza Guadalupana San Marcos group in El Paso. She will dance with 200 other “matachines” for a “Two Nations, One Faith” event at Sun Bowl Stadium. Like many other Catholics in El Paso or Juárez, she hopes the biggest message Francis pushes is one of peace, to continue making the border region a more stable place to live.

“I think the pope will bring a message of peace,” she said. “That there not be any more differences between people. That we are all equal.”

“We also see this is an opportunity for everyone to better, for everyone of faith to come together and convey this message in a world that is becoming really more and more secular all the time,” he said.

On Feb. 17, while all eyes are on the border as Francis makes his stops around Ciudad Juárez, Latinos in the area will also have an opportunity to present themselves to a mainstream American audience.

“I think what they’re going to see is a lot of humble people that have an awful lot of faith,” Saenz said. “I think (the United States) needs to see that because that’s actually closer to what we really are than the representations a lot of Americans have of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and radically different than the representation that Donald Trump and the rest of the lot say we are.”

Francis’ final stop, a public mass in Juárez along the U.S.-Mexico border, will serve as a visual symbol of the line that divides these two nations and a region that was linked before a border was ever erected.

“Borders do not exist in nature. They are constructions,” Saenz said. “So I think when you see a mass right on the border and see a fence, you realize that a fence, how unnatural it is.”

Mexicans have enjoyed profound relationships with popes in the past, Seitz said. He said this began with Pope John Paul II, a fluent Spanish speaker who visited Mexico multiple times. (John Paul also visited Phoenix in September 1987 and led a mass service at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium.)

“There was no place in the world besides maybe Poland that Pope John Paul had more affection for,” Seitz said, referring to Mexico. “I think that really continued when Pope Benedict visited as well, but I think Pope Francis is very easily going to have that mantle placed upon him.”

It’s a mantle of Latino representation, one that emphasizes the importance of immigrants who come to the United States. In the same Philadelphia speech, Francis compared his messages of acceptance and pluralism to the words of the Declaration of Independence.

“When (Francis) comes to Mexico, every person who has roots in Latin America and particularly in Mexico is going to feel a tremendous pride and affection for this man, who we believe is chosen by God for this work,” Seitz said. “At the same time, he’s really one of us.”