SAN ANTONIO — Pope John Paul II lent encouragement to the controversial church-based sanctuary movement Sunday by lauding the "great courage and generosity" of those who have given support and aid to Central American refugees.
Preaching in both Spanish and English under a blistering sun in this largely Latino city, the pontiff praised those "who have been doing much on behalf of suffering brothers and sisters arriving from the south."
"They have sought to show compassion in the face of complex human, social and political realities," John Paul told a Mass attended by an estimated 275,000 people, the largest crowd that he has yet addressed on his nine-city American pilgrimage, entering its fifth day today.
In contrast to the rather sedate reception that he experienced in previous stops, the pontiff drew larger crowds and was more warmly received as he moved about San Antonio in his glass-box Popemobile, waving cheerfully from an open side window to throngs of cheering people estimated at 325,000 along the 4.6-mile parade route.
The hot weather exacted a toll, however. Hundreds of people collapsed at the outdoor Mass and 22 were hospitalized.
Although the Pope carefully avoided endorsing breaking the law, and did not use the term "sanctuary," an official in the papal entourage said the movement, in which both Catholics and Protestants have risked federal indictment to shield Central American refugees, was clearly the object of his remarks.
Not Supporting Illegal Action
Father Bruce Nieli, Texas' Catholic director of evangelization, said the pontiff would not support any illegal activity and was speaking generally of all church groups helping refugees with food, shelter and the legalization process.
Nonetheless, sanctuary leaders took encouragement in John Paul's words.
Members of the 5-year-old movement have provided safe haven for Central American refugees--mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala--who enter the United States illegally and seek asylum on grounds that they face violence and political retaliation if they are deported to their own countries. The U.S. government generally rejects asylum on the grounds that the refugees immigrated here for economic, not political, reasons.
In a celebrated case last year, eight sanctuary workers, including two Roman Catholic priests and a nun, were convicted in federal court in Tucson of 16 felony counts. All were placed on probation. The Justice Department sent undercover informants with concealed tape recorders into churches to gather evidence for the case.
One of those convicted, the Rev. John M. Fife of Tucson, a Presbyterian minister who co-founded the nationwide movement, Sunday called the Pope's remarks "very helpful."
Fife said the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service "will have greater difficulty now with their statements that the sanctuary movement is political and not religious. The Holy Father has made it very clear that the sanctuary movement is based in faith."
Fife predicted that the Pope's encouragement to sanctuary workers will be especially helpful in Texas, where he said the "greatest risk" and greatest antagonism to the movement exists.
Father Luis Olivares of Los Angeles, pastor of a self-declared refugee sanctuary at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, said he feared that U.S. immigration authorities would put their own interpretation on the Pope's remarks. "I would assume that they would attempt to limit it to humanitarian work that is clearly legal," he said.
The Justice Department declined comment in Washington, but Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said, "As long as people are assisting without breaking the law, we support that."
400 Sanctuaries Claimed
The government has not prosecuted any additional sanctuary cases since the Tucson conviction, asserting that the movement is in decline. Sanctuary advocates dispute that, claiming that as many as 400 U.S. churches, including 42 in Southern California, have declared themselves sanctuaries, although that does not mean they all have sheltered refugees.
In his remarks, delivered to a heavily Latino audience gathered in 90-degree heat and heavy humidity in a 144-acre open field on the western outskirts of San Antonio, John Paul declared: "This land is a crossroads. . . . standing at the border of two great nations and experiencing both the enrichment and the complications which arise from this circumstance.
"You are thus a symbol and a kind of laboratory, testing America's commitment to her founding moral principles and human values," he added, echoing the call for America to live up to its constitutional ideals that he first proclaimed on his arrival in Miami on Thursday.
'Viva el Papa'
Several times during the Mass, and during the day, the 67-year-old pontiff spoke in Spanish and was hailed by applause and shouts of "Viva el Papa."