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Pontiff Seen As An Icon In The Latin World
By Mark I. Pinsky and Kate Santich | Sentinel Staff Writers
April 5, 2005
By 6:45 p.m. Monday, Holy Cross Catholic Church was nearly filled. More than 600 parishioners had streamed into the predominantly Hispanic church for the 7 p.m. Mass honoring Pope John Paul II.
At the front of the sanctuary, an easel bearing an oil portrait of the pope stood next to the pulpit. Candles flickered beneath the painting. Midway through the bilingual service, the Rev. Esau Garcia asked the south Orlando congregation to chant, "John Paul, the world loves you" in Spanish.
From the very beginning of his reign, John Paul reached out to Spanish-speaking Catholics and to Latin America, home to more than half of the world's Roman Catholics. The demonstration of affection at Holy Cross reflected how much his outreach meant.
"He was the one who named Latin America el continente esperanza -- the continent of hope," said Garcia, pastor of Holy Cross, who was ordained by John Paul in Rome in 1987. "No other pope had been close to people in Latin America."
Garcia, a native of Colombia, said the pope learned Spanish as a seminarian so he could read the writings of Spanish saints. But it came in handy in other circumstances.
The Rev. Jose Bautista, director of the Hispanic Ministry of the Diocese of Orlando, said the pope's multilingualism endeared him to Hispanics everywhere, including Bautista himself.
"I met him in 1986 with a group of seminarians," Bautista recalled. "There were 14 of us from the U.S., Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, and as he greeted each of us, he asked where we were from. And so I said, 'I'm from Colombia' -- and immediately he switched to Spanish and talked to me. I was very taken by that."
The pope's affinity for the poor and suffering also gave him a special kinship to the citizens of developing countries, as well as Hispanics here in the United States, Bautista said.
Religious scholar Timothy Matovina agreed.
"These are people who would never have had a chance to go see him, so he came to them," said Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "He was very aware that the largest population of Catholics in the world today is in Latin America, and he saw them as part of his flock."
Legacy of outreach
Felix Lopez of Orlando was in Puerto Rico when the pope visited the island in 1984, and shook John Paul's hand. Lopez said the papal visit gave him hope, and the message he took from it was to "keep going, never stop, because God is with you."
The next pope will have a difficult time measuring up to John Paul, he added.
In Central Florida, where the growing Hispanic population recently topped 464,000, an estimated 75 percent of Hispanics are Catholic. Many of them hope to see John Paul's legacy of outreach continued.
"I was still a young teenager when he was elected pope, but I remember it vividly," said Orlando attorney Robert Alfert, now 39, whose parents had fled Cuba under Fidel Castro. "It had a profound impact -- here was a pope from a country that experienced the oppression of communism -- exactly as my parents had."
Focus on Latin America
From 1979 to 2002, the pope visited at least seven Spanish-speaking or Latin American countries, including three trips to Mexico. The pontiff had good reason to focus on Latin America, where the Catholic Church faces a strong challenge in the religious marketplace from evangelical Protestants, experts say.
In marked contrast to the Catholic Church, Pentecostal missionaries offer small, intimate congregations, often with strong financial support from the United States. Some allow women in pastoral leadership and do not oppose birth control.
John Paul's travels, his personal charisma and his respect for indigenous cultures combined to make him an icon in the Latin world. When he canonized Juan Diego -- a native Mexican farmer and laborer -- the pontiff included Aztec dancers in the ceremony, despite the disapproval of some cardinals. The ceremony recognized the roots of the Mexican people, and indicated that the pope saw that the Holy Spirit was at work in Mexico before the ministers of Catholicism arrived.
"Most saints before he was pope were European male celibates," said Matovina. "But he canonized saints in many Third World countries, including Latin America, so now they have their own saints, their own model of holiness. And for a lot of people, this is a tremendous affirmation."
As for a successor, attorney Alfert says he hopes for a pope who is more moderate and progressive than John Paul -- and preferably one from a developing nation.
"I think it would give the Holy See even greater credibility that it is truly . . . attempting to empower the impoverished and the oppressed," he said.
Others, such as Ivan Delgado, 42, of Kissimmee, would like to see someone in the mold of John Paul II.
"I couldn't see changing a thing," he said.