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The Papal Visit : Latinos Are Elated but Language Is a Problem

September 17, 1987|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

Antonia Diaz never imagined she would see Pope John Paul II "in the flesh," much less sit in the same church with him, hear him speak and even shake his hand.

It became a reality Tuesday when Diaz, 32, was invited to the pontiff's formal greeting at St. Vibiana's Cathedral. There was only one hitch: Diaz speaks mostly Spanish and the Pope delivered his message in English.

But, when Diaz, an active East Los Angeles parishioner, saw the response of those around her, she said she "could sense that it was a beautiful message. I felt united with them in a moment of great emotion."

'A Little Sad'

Still, she mused, "It made me a little sad that he didn't bring us a message here in Spanish so that we could understand him better."

Other Latino Catholics in Los Angeles--where more than half of the Catholics are Latino--have felt similarly elated by the Pope's presence, but some have also shared with Diaz a tinge of disappointment.

In Spanish-speaking communities across the Sun Belt this week, there has been unabashed pride that John Paul came to see them. Closer to the Pope's stated moral values than American Catholics as a whole, Latino Catholics have greeted the Pope with religious and cultural fervor.

However, some would have liked the Pope to more forcefully affirm the growing importance of Latino Catholics in the church, already more than one-third of the Catholics in the country. Others had hoped he would go further in addressing issues of pressing concern to Latinos, such as immigration and work on behalf of Central American refugees.

In what has turned out to be perhaps the most controversial statement of his U.S. tour, the Pope appeared to encourage the controversial church-based sanctuary movement on behalf of refugees and immigrants. But, when U.S. immigration authorities asked for a clarification of his San Antonio homily, a Vatican spokesman denied that the Pope's remarks were meant as an endorsement of the movement.

Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony noted that the Pope never used the word "sanctuary" in his remarks. He "is not calling us to civil disobedience," he said. But, adding that the Pope's remarks reflect the archdiocese's own policy, Mahony said: "We need to look at refugees and migrants as people, first and foremost. . . . We don't look at them as border violators."

Church advocates for immigrants and refugees were not dissuaded, however.

"He is not directly encouraging violation of the law, and we don't expect him to . . . but there is no question that the work we are involved with has been praised and endorsed by the Holy Father," said Father Luis Olivares, pastor at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church. La Placita, as the church is also known among its predominantly Latino parishioners, was the first Catholic Church in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees.

In his remarks, "the Pope clearly spoke of the people arriving from Central America as refugees suffering persecution . . . who the church must reach out to," added the Rev. John M. Fife of Tucson, a Presbyterian minister and co-founder of the nationwide movement who was convicted along with others last year and placed on probation on various charges.

Fife claimed that immigration officials' "frantic and petty" reaction to the Pope's statement indicates that "they understood very well what he meant."

"I remain very grateful," he added.

Although the pontiff's remarks in Los Angeles have been primarily delivered in English, he frequently addressed Cubans and Haitians in Miami in their own languages. In San Antonio, he delivered a talk to Latino parishioners entirely in Spanish.

"Among you there are people of great courage and generosity who have been doing much on behalf of suffering brothers and sisters arriving from the south," the Pope said in his San Antonio homily. And, addressing Latinos, he challenged them to show "solidarity" in addressing their own needs.

Pope John Paul arrived here at a crucial moment for the nation's predominantly Latino Catholic immigrants and refugees.

Since enactment of the nation's new immigration law last November, millions of immigrants have been engaged in a bureaucratic battle to gain legal status under the legislation's amnesty program. Many others, including hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees who do not qualify for the amnesty, face even greater difficulties.

In his homily at Dodger Stadium Wednesday, the Pope referred to California as "a haven for immigrants" and encouraged "unity in diversity." The pontiff also commended the church's work "in helping several million undocumented immigrants to become legal residents."

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