Pope Francis waves to crowds from a papal vehicle. Public domain image.
Pope Francis waves to crowds from a papal vehicle. Public domain image.

The first Latin American pope will arrive Tuesday in “gringolandia” for a six-day apostolic visit—his first to the U.S. as pontiff. Pope Francis’s visit, which starts in Washington before proceeding to New York and Philadelphia, has officially been scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the World Meeting of Families. As has been widely reported, Francis will also address the UN General Assembly on climate change.

For Hispanic Catholics, however, the most significant part of the visit may lie elsewhere, in the Pope’s symbolically key visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, a Catholic school whose student population is 70% Latino and 22% black.

Francis’s presence at the school represents a public show of papal concern for the more socially and economically vulnerable members of U.S. society, many of whom are young Catholic Hispanics. But it is also a wake-up call for the U.S. Church to involve itself more actively in the everyday realities of Hispanics’ lives because the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. will itself be increasingly Hispanic.

The school visit is even more significance in light of Francis’s recent protests (May encyclical letter “Laudato Si’”) against the global economic inequalities that have led to what he called a “tragic rise” in the number of migrants fleeing poverty worldwide. On Wall Street, Francis will use his visit to place a disadvantaged, largely Hispanic school community of migrant origin center stage.

This approach marks a clear departure from the papacy of John Paul II, a more conservative Pope for whom Hispanic and Latin American Catholics were key pieces in a global fight against communism. In contrast, Francis has chosen to highlight the marginalization and uprootedness that are experienced by many Hispanics largely as a result of the global economic model endorsed by the U.S.

More than this, Francis believes that the continued exclusion of poorer Hispanics in the U.S. degrades America. In Washington, Francis will canonize the 18th-century Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, the “Apostle of California,” during a Mass in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Serra toiled among the indigenous Pame people in Mexico after arriving from Spain; he then spent 15 years in California, founding missions at San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere before his death in 1784.

What possible relevance does the canonization of an obscure Mallorcan (indeed migrant) saint have in 2015? According to Francis, Serra should be seen as “one of the founding fathers of the United States” by virtue of his missionary zeal and protection of his indigenous and Hispanic flock. By following his legacy, Francis has said, “may all Americans rediscover their own dignity and unite themselves ever more closely to Christ and his Church.”

The force of language is striking. Francis is saying that the denial of dignity to Hispanics is not merely wrong, but wrong because it compromises the dignity of all Americans.

Since it is unlikely that Francis’ visit will lead to sudden conversions among world policymakers over climate change, it may be that its greatest impact is felt in his call for greater recognition of migrants’ humanity. Francis is clearly priming American Catholics to take a stronger position on questions such as migration reform and the social inclusion of Hispanics.

As the U.S. Catholic Church becomes ever more Hispanic, while Hispanics themselves become more diverse in their religious choices, Francis is making a renewed pitch for the spiritual loyalties of migrant communities. And that might just be the most impactful message of this papal trip – a very public recognition by Francis of the individual identity of Hispanics, the problems that they face, and their value to the Church.

This op-ed was originally published by UT News. To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here and/or follow on Facebook.

*Top image: Pope Francis waves to crowds from a papal vehicle. Public domain image. 

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Matthew Butler

Matthew Butler is an associate professor of modern Mexican history and is also affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.