SAN ANTONIO — Altagracia Torres will be in a sea of brown faces welcoming El Papa this evening to Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, the activist heart of this predominantly Mexican-American city.
Pope John Paul II is scheduled to speak--in Spanish--in the small plaza across the street from the church at what is billed as one of the most intimate public gatherings of his nine-city U.S. tour.
Torres, 72, a lifelong parishioner who terms the Pope's visit "something sacred," has been praying that she holds onto her seat--one of only 3,000 at the plaza. She tenses when she thinks that she might be bumped by a bishop or a deacon.
"I respect bishops and priests," Torres said, "but no more than the winitos (little winos) two blocks down the street."
Though she walks with the aid of a metal walker, Torres, a large woman, is no pushover. She dismisses the "politicking" for the seats with a wave of her hand.
"The Pope's no fool," she said. "He knows who he is coming to see, that there is a necessity to see us and us him."
America's estimated 17 million to 21 million Latino Catholics are indeed a subject of great interest at the Vatican.
When the American bishops met with the Pope in Rome a few years ago during their last official visit there, they were forcefully questioned by Vatican officials about Latinos in their dioceses.
By one account, some of the bishops were startled and some "almost rattled" under questioning from the officials, who seemed to know more about Latinos in their dioceses than some of the bishops did.
Earlier this year, when a smaller group of bishops met with the Pope in Rome for a week, John Paul wanted to know how the church in the United States was preparing to help illegal aliens under the new U.S. immigration reform law, according one bishop.
As many as 40% of U.S. Catholics are Latino, and some church leaders believe that the Pope's U.S. tour is, in large measure, a visit to Spanish-speaking American Catholics.
In Miami, where nearly three out of four Catholics are Latino, the pontiff was welcomed to the United States by throngs of Cuban-Americans, the area's predominant Latino group.
Across the Mexican-American Southwest, as in Los Angeles, fully one-half of all Catholics are Latino. In Texas, the proportion runs as high as 75%. In Phoenix, another stop on the Pope's tour, it is about one in three.
"I think the focus of the Pope will be very much to affirm and welcome the Hispanic community into the full life of the church," said Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony. "He is very, very conscious of (Latinos') importance."
When the Pope comes to Our Lady of Guadalupe, he will see one of the poorest communities in San Antonio. On hot summer days, old people and immigrant families escape to the porches of their weathered, ramshackle wooden homes. Deteriorating public housing throughout the area is home to hundreds of families who are too busy with problems of survival to be involved with the church. Some have only a vague notion of the Pope's plans to visit the neighborhood.
Yet, even in the midst of their poverty, Mexican-American Catholics in this city's West Side barrio have sustained a rich religious tradition. Sixty years ago, women in the neighborhood sold tamales to finance construction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the modest, redbrick church known as "the heart of the West Side."
A plaque at the church's entrance declares, "The Mexicans of San Antonio" built this church "for their patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe." The brown-faced virgin appeared to an Indian in Mexico more than 400 years ago, according to church tradition, and became a powerful symbol of liberation for a conquered people.
The little church has lived up to its name. Over the years, Torres has supported activist priests who were outraged by extreme neglect of the neighborhood.
Coalition of Parishes
More recently, with the church's backing, Torres and other parishioners have built Communities Organized for Public Service, a coalition of parishes that has changed the way politics in the city work.
In 1970, before COPS was organized, San Antonio's Archbishop Patrick Flores was named the first Mexican-American bishop in the United States. With Flores' blessing, a professional community organizer assisted West Side parishes in organizing COPS. Over its 14-year history, the militant parish-based organization has scored some impressive victories.
In 1981, with the balance of political power rapidly shifting in San Antonio, Henry G. Cisneros was elected the first Mexican-American mayor of a major U.S. city.
COPS has changed the face of San Antonio, and Latino Catholics here see the Pope's visit to Guadalupe parish as a strong affirmation of their culture and of their vehement, church-based social activism.
Theme of 'Parish Ministries'