Four years have passed since the Holy Spirit inspired the election of the first Latino pope. Pope Francis. Wait. Is that Latino or Latin American? Well, it depends on where you draw the line. I would argue that it is fine to speak of Pope Francis as a Latino pope.
Though born in Latin America, Pope Francis has much in common with the more than 30 million Catholics in our country who self-identify as Hispanic/Latino, immigrant and U.S.-born. When the pope speaks and acts, his message resonates strongly with most Latino Catholics insofar as the religious and cultural connotations.
During the past four years, Pope Francis has shared with the entire world a way of being Catholic rooted in the best of the Latino/Latin American experience. The sensibilities that he has brought to inform his pontificate echo in many ways the sensibilities of Catholics practicing, sharing and celebrating our faith with a Latino outlook.
We should not forget that those sensibilities were honed by directly engaging the socio-cultural realities of the communities he accompanied for most of his life as a priest and bishop.
Pope Francis does not hesitate to speak in Spanish when addressing large audiences, regardless of where in the world he is. This, however, is much more than making a convenient decision about language. In doing so, he reveals that he thinks and theologizes “in Spanish,” as do almost half a billion Catholics in the world.
Sometimes this means using expressions that convey powerful meanings requiring careful discernment because of their origin. Other times this means understanding reality from a Latino perspective. The pope is introducing Catholics to incredibly rich and beautiful ways of articulating our faith that are relevant to all.
When Pope Francis speaks of “a poor church for the poor,” he is not asking Catholics to imagine poverty or to do something that the church — the people of God — cannot accomplish.
He comes from a part of the American continent where hundreds of millions live in poverty and many church organizations and leaders, inspired by the Gospel, have championed efforts to confront this social ill. He knows that the work is unfinished. In his present role as the bishop of Rome, he challenges all Christians to do likewise everywhere poverty exists.
One opportunity for Catholics in the United States to experience the freshness with which God has gifted the Catholic world in recent years is through the process of the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, a priority initiative of the Catholic bishops in the country (see www.vencuentro.org).
The V Encuentro embodies many aspects of Pope Francis’ prophetic vision for evangelization, a vision deeply informed by his Latin American experience. The V Encuentro is a moment to speak and think “in Spanish” — literally and metaphorically. It is an invitation to be a poor church for the poor, a true moment of Catholic renewal.
Many speak of the “Francis effect.” Yes, there is one in our country. However, I think that much of that “effect” actually started several decades before Pope Francis, thanks to the exponential growth of the Latino Catholic population since the middle of the 20th century.
When the pope speaks and acts, his message finds fertile ground in the hearts of millions of U.S. Catholics, particularly Latinos, who share with him important religious and cultural roots.
In four years, Pope Francis, the first Latino pope, has brought to the fore much of the energy, language and initiatives that Latinos share with the rest of the church in the United States. Let us allow ourselves to share in this moment of grace.
Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. He is a member of the leadership team for the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry.