SAN ANTONIO — A poor barrio church here hosted the leader of the world's 800 million Catholics Sunday night, celebrating their religion and culture in a Mexican-style fiesta.
Pope John Paul II was greeted by the 3,000 parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish with enthusiastic cheers and shouts of "Viva el Papa!"
The pontiff returned their adulation, smiling and bestowing his blessing and, speaking in clearly articulated Spanish, he affirmed their heritage and their place in the church.
Lump in His Throat
Rudy Enriquez, 62, a lifelong member of the parish, felt a lump in his throat as the pontiff entered the small open-air plaza across from the tiny church.
"We've waited for this moment a long time," said Enriquez, recalling the months of preparation for the Pope's visit by parishioners young and old. "I still can't believe it."
John Paul's visit was one of the most intimate of his public appearances on his United States tour and the only event in which he met with a predominantly Latino audience. The festivities included church choirs, mariachi bands and Aztec dancers, and a stage resplendent with a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe in strong Mexican colors.
"We are part of the American church," said Archbishop Patrick Flores, the nation's first bishop of Mexican descent, as he introduced John Paul to the ebullient crowd. "One-third of the American church is Spanish-speaking."
In his introductory remarks, Flores also noted that Mexican-Americans are the fastest growing segment in the country, adding that this is because "we believe in the family and in its values."
The Pope emphasized the importance of family as "the basic unit of society and of the church" and called on parishes to commit themselves fully to serve families "especially in the face of so much breakdown . . . of family life in society."
He also urged his listeners to adhere to the "objective content" of the church's doctrinal and moral teachings and not "invent the faith as we go along." He encouraged them to return to the practice of going to confession regularly and of family prayer.
"And I ask you especially to reach out to those brothers and sisters in the faith who have drifted away because of indifference or who have been hurt in some way," John Paul said.
While the Pope's remarks were frequently greeted with polite applause, the loudest response followed the Pope's final cheer of "Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe."
"This is the climax of all the work we've been doing here for many years," said Enriquez, who has been involved in the parish's religious life as well as its politically activist tradition.
Enriquez, like others in the crowd, had hoped that the Pope would also affirm the community's social activism in his talk at the plaza. Religious leaders in the parish have fought for public improvements in the neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city. And for more than a decade, with the backing of the city's religious leaders, Guadalupe and other Westside parishes have built COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), a church-based coalition that has given Mexican-Americans a voice in the city's politics.
John Paul disappointed some by not directly addressing the issue.
"I would have expected the Pope to address the social needs and problems" of Latinos, said Father Edmundo Rodriguez, head of the Southern Province of the Jesuit Order and former pastor at Guadalupe. It was Rodriguez who encouraged the formation of the parish-based organization, with Flores' blessing.
Rodriguez called COPS "a very good example of a community's willingness to struggle--not just out of a humanistic motivation--but out of the motivation of their faith."
Enriquez, an active member of the church-based organization, did not show his disappointment. Rather, he said he was inspired by John Paul's emphasis in his talk on the importance of parish life as an extension of family unity and of reaching out to those in need.
"You have to spread the word, make that connection," Enriquez said.
The red brick church of Guadalupe was built 60 years ago by parishioners who held bazaars and sold bricks to raise money for construction. The modest church has since been declared a regional shrine, a special place of worship for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The brown Virgin Mary, the Patroness of Mexico, remains a symbol of hope and liberation for the downtrodden.