Why the Election of Pope Francis Matters to Catholic Extension

March 14, 2013

Pope Francis I
Newly elected Pope Francis
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As a Papal Society and American Catholic institution, we at Catholic Extension have closely followed the election of our new Holy Father, Francis. 

In my previous post, I offered reflections on the five influential popes for Catholic Extension during its past 108 years of history.

Today, we are charged with the task of looking ahead, as we consider what this new papacy of Francis means for us. While it’s way too early to predict what Francis’ legacy will be in the Church, here are three thoughts on what his papacy has already conveyed to us. 

It’s About the Poor!

Diocese of San Bernardino, Coachella Valley, CA.
Sister Gabi’s spiritual support helps Maria through the challenges of daily life.

By choosing the name Francis, one thing that our new pope signals to us Catholics is that the Church must remain close to the poor.  It was Francis, the great medieval saint from Assisi, Italy, who renounced his self-absorbed life and gave up his wealth to begin a life of prayer and service to the poor.   His simple witness of making the poor and the outcasts the center of attention has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries, and his life serves as a perpetual reminder of the centrality of the poor in all that we do as a Church. 

For 108 years, Catholic Extension has existed for one purpose: to allow the poor and the scattered in America to know the transformative power of faith, which enables them to see and believe that they are more than their circumstances. 

This papacy of Francis I will serve as a symbol to the millions of Catholics in the poor communities of America that receive support from  Catholic Extension that they are not on the periphery, but are really at the heart of the Church.

Last year, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, “We must get out from within ourselves, go towards the periphery.”

Sometimes people forget that extreme poverty is here in America, too.  Catholic Extension serves as a voice for many of the forgotten in America, including those who are:  

  • The isolated fieldworkers in northern California, who live with up to five other families in garages and sheds, often with no bathrooms or running water.  Struggling to make ends meet, and to feed their children, this invisible community is served by a ministry that is funded by Catholic Extension, providing food, clothing, counseling and spiritual guidance to the poorest of the poor. 
  • The kids in Stanton, Kentucky.  There is a small church there, called Our Lady of the Mountains, that receives a small operating subsidy from Catholic Extension.  The church provides both spiritual and material support to a community so destitute that each year the parish must conduct a “socks and underwear drive” for local children whose parents are too poor to clothe them with these basic necessities.  “What is your hope for this parish?” I asked a group of parish leaders. “To be able to help more people,” three of the leaders chimed in with little hesitation. “Here, we know how to live our Christianity,” one woman told me.

Due to his historic choice of name, Pope Francis will forever remind us that being Catholic necessitates having a strong commitment to the poor. 

The Church in the Americas Has Arrived!  

Extension Magazine | Catholic ExtensionCover of Extension Magazine, Spring 2013.
More than 14,000 gather in Puerto Rico’s largest indoor stadium in San Juan 
to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Catholic Church in the Americas.

Just as Catholic Extension’s latest magazine was working its way through the printer, news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation came about.  What you’ll notice is that this recent issue of Extension magazine focuses on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Catholic Church in the Americas.  As it turns out, that magazine serves as a fitting and serendipitously timed prequel to a now larger story about the Church in the Americas having officially “arrived” on the global stage, given the momentous occasion of our first-elected pope from the Western Hemisphere.

It was on Christmas day in 1512 that the first Catholic bishop, Alonso Manso, arrived on the island of Puerto Rico from Spain, officially marking the beginning of the institutional Church in the New World.  Five hundred years and three months later, the first pope has emerged from this hemisphere, which is a fitting exclamation point to the five centuries of faith that have beautifully unfolded in this part of the world – now home to almost 600,000,000 Catholics. Having this pope represent us “New Worlders” is quite an amazing rite of passage when you consider that only about a dozen nationalities have ever been represented from the Chair of Peter. 

I was able to be present at the 500th anniversary celebration of the Church in the Americas, which took place November 19, 2012, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Since Catholic Extension’s founding in 1905, it has given nearly $60 million in support to the Church in Puerto Rico and continues to do so.  Over 14,000 people packed into Puerto Rico’s largest indoor arena to mark this incredible milestone.  The event was beautifully solemn yet so very festive and colorful.

“With the arrival of Bishop Alonso [in 1512], we began the first evangelization,” Bishop Ruben Gonzalez of Caguas, Puerto Rico, said at the event, “500 years later we are giving continuation to this beautiful evangelization.” 

To officially start the New Evangelization, a team of lay, religious and ordained delegates from each of the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, together with their bishop, made a formal public pledge to carry out the work of the New Evangelization beginning that day and continuing for the next 500 years.

Now that we’ve added a pope from the Americas into the mix, there is no telling what heights we can reach as we commence the next chapter of our history as Catholics in the Western Hemisphere. 

Hispanic Catholics are a Force in the Church!

Catholic Extension YakimaDiocese of Yakima, WA.
The community gathers to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The election of a Latin American pope and a native Spanish-speaker is a wonderful gift to the Church at this juncture in our history. 

You may be surprised to learn that the pope’s home country of Argentina has fewer Hispanics than the U.S.  With its 52 million Hispanics, the U.S. is the second largest Hispanic nation in the world.  Only Mexico has a larger Hispanic population than the U.S.   

Among the U.S.’s 68 million Catholics, more than 40% are Hispanic, and by the end of this decade they could be the majority of Catholics in the U.S.

Yet, in many places, especially in the poor communities served by Catholic Extension where resources are scarce, the Hispanic populations unfortunately still exist in the shadows, often without even the basic pastoral presence of a priest, catechist or leader. 

Tim Matovina, professor at Notre Dame, and author of Latino Catholicism said it best: “How we pass on the faith to the children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants is the leading indicator of where the Church [in the U.S.] will be 30 years from now. This is not a priority just for Hispanic ministry, the entire Catholic Church needs to be involved in it.”

Hispanic Catholics are passionate about their faith, and we at Catholic Extension want to do everything in our power to nurture that spark of faith. 

To support the growth and development of the U.S. Hispanic Church, Catholic Extension has created a $15 million Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.  It represents the single largest investment in the U.S. Hispanic Catholic Church today. See a video about this exciting initiative.

Consider the extreme sacrifice and extraordinary dedication of people like Lupe Gonzalez, who is one of the leaders funded through our $15 million initiative, and featured in the above video.  Lupe is the Coordinator of Religious Formation for Rural West Texas, in the Diocese of El Paso.  She travels 700 miles a week to bring her faith formation ministry to isolated Latino Catholics where there are no ordained leaders.  This one woman is single-handedly reaching 16 rural communities of West Texas, and bringing faith and community to hundreds of people.  To save on overhead expenses, Lupe sleeps in church sacristies during her travels.  Lupe’s dedication to sharing the Catholic faith amid great challenges is certainly very inspiring and hopefully very contagious. 

We are excited to see how Pope Francis, a son of Latin America, will further energize our entire Church, but most especially the Latino Church. 

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