Jose Luis Sedano attends Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles Wednesday March 13, 2013, to welcome the new pontiff, Pope Francis. Experts say the energy surrounding the papacy of Pope Francis may lead Latinos to return to the Catholic Church in the U.S. and to more Hispanic leaders in the Church. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Pope Francis effect: Energized Hispanics may return to Catholicism, become Church leaders

Pope Francis, the first Latin American Pope, has put a spotlight on U.S. Latino Catholics, a demographic that saw lower representation in the Church between 2008 and 2012, falling from 58 to 54 percent, according to a Gallup analysis.

Experts say his papacy is an opportunity for the Church to bring Hispanic Catholics back into the fold and create a culture of embracing Latino clergy to become leaders in the Catholic Church in the U.S.  While U.S. Census figures show there are an estimated 27 million Hispanic Catholics in the United States, and the Church credits the growth of Catholicism since 1960 largely to Hispanic immigrants, there are only 29 Latino Bishops out of  273  nationwide.

“Pope Francis’s first days have already been very inspiring,” says Hosffman Ospino, a professor of theology and education at Boston College. “For U.S. Latinos there is a strong identification with him since he is Latin American.”

He says Pope Francis’ choice of name has also made Latinos take notice. “The devotion to St. Francis of Assisi is very strong in Latin America, being one of the most popular and beloved saints,” he says. “Everyone hopes that his pontificate continues to inspire many Catholics to rekindle their faith, particularly those who are not fully practicing.”

But Ospino also says that no leader, no matter how charismatic, can reverse a trend of Latinos leaving the Church on his own. Timothy Matovina, Executive Director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, agrees.

“The first Latin American pope is going to be a factor, it’s a wonderful thing, but it’s only one factor,” he says. “One man can not change the trends of what’s going on, it’s going to be up to the local leadership.”

RELATED: Argentinians celebrate Francis as their ‘Slum Pope’

Matovina says it’s the Hispanic ministry that has been most energized and excited about the idea of a pope they can relate to. He envisions Pope Francis seizing upon this energy to elect more Hispanic bishops and cardinals.

“He may appoint more Hispanic bishops,” he says. “That was Pope John Paul II’s greatest influence — he was pope for so long that 90 percent of the bishops were his appointees when he passed.”

Matovina says an opportunity may exist in Chicago where Cardinal Francis Goerge submitted his resignation after reaching retirement age in January 2012. While he is expected to stay on another year or two until the Pope “accepts” his resignation, the replacement could very well be a Latino.

Jose Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles, which is 48.5 percent Hispanic, is also another option to become a U.S. cardinal, since Los Angeles has traditionally had one. Currently there are no U.S. Latino cardinals and with the exception of lay people, Hispanics are underrepresented in Church leadership.

Ospino also says he sees more Hispanic Church leaders in the future, due to the influence of the pope. “He will certainly be more sensitive to the growth of Latinos in the Catholic Church and will challenge Catholics in the country to foster more leaders among Latinos,” he says.

Those within the Church are unsurprisingly, ecstatic.

“In the last few days, Hispanics have gotten a lot more attention from everybody within the Catholic Church,” says Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the director of Hispanic affairs for the  U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops. “There is a sense of connectedness, a rising awareness by non-Hispanic Catholics of Latinos within the Church.”

Aguilera-Titus says the enthusiasm felt by Latinos after the election of Pope Francis is evident on the Catholic Facebook page he maintains, Por tu Matrimonio (For Your Marriage) in both English and Spanish. Since the news broke, he says the amount of people engaging with the Spanish page has been double, triple and quadruple the usual engagement.

RELATED: Opinion: If Pope Francis revives Catholicism among US Latinos, it will be a miracle

All of the experts said that in pursuing his signature issue — income inequality — Pope Francis will be speaking to a concern that affects the lives of many Latinos in Latin America and in the U.S.

“In the US, the discussions around the elections were all about the middle class and the poor got very little say,” Aguilera-Titus says.  “A disproportionate number of Latinos live under the poverty level. The stigma of the undocumented face is Latino. He will be able to draw attention to people who live in poverty in a different way — through the perspective of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus and not socialism, capitalism or any other ‘ism.'”

He says having Church leaders become role models for the Latino community is very powerful. Notre Dame’s Matovina, echoes this sentiment, citing the previous influx of Irish-Americans and Irish priests and their relationship.

“When people have their own priests it makes loyalty to Catholic teachings much more ingrained,” he says. “The pastor becomes a personal friend of the family and not a distant teacher. He’s the one who baptized your kids, the person who you invite over for dinner.”

But Aguilera-Titus, bringing it back to the promise of Pope Francis, has been fascinated by how he has gone about being Pope in his first days.

“He feels so comfortable with people and he is a real person,” he says.

“He is not choosing the life of prince of the Church, but of the common person. He asked people to bless him — that’s very Latino.”

RELATED: Pope Francis, Argentina’s President Kirchner have a history of contentious battles

%d bloggers like this: