September 4, I watched the 20/20 special, “Pope Francis and the People,” in tears hearing him speak Spanish and choosing to speak to Latinos on the margins of society. I was surprised by the strength of my own emotional reaction to hearing the pope address the nation and his flock in Spanish, in a day when the language is stigmatized, fodder for GOP political vitriol. I am a fifth generation Latina who was not taught to speak Spanish as a child because of the shame associated with the language. Even as a non-native speaker, I am sometimes shamed for not speaking Spanish (ironically, because my family was shamed in to not teaching my generation), I was refreshed by the pope’s voice.
During the pope’s video discussions over video, a young Latina at a Cristo Rey school in Chicago was admonished to sing; a single mother was praised for her devotion to her daughters in Texas; and a nun in the same parish was told that she was beloved for her work welcoming immigrants. I imagined how humbling it may have been for those women to feel seen and known by the leader of the Catholic church. We read studies and statistics about the changing demographics of the Catholic church, but that night we saw faces, the new face of our average Catholic.
This week in The Washington Post’s coverage of the pope’s visit in Cuba, Pope Francis’ homily was quoted, “The soul of the Cuban people … was forged amid suffering and privation which could not suppress the faith. … “Grandmothers, mothers, and so many others … kept open a tiny space, small as a mustard seed.” When Pope Francis praises the women’s courage to carry faith in the face of adversity, I also think of the African American mothers of the church. These are women who carried faith forward for generations to follow with valor and fire. The parable of the mustard seed does not come to mind for me, rather I see these women as prophets, who followed the Jesuit father’s command to “go set the world on fire” as boldly as anyone ever has.
I think of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas, who is both an active part of the sacred and secular lives of the people, calling forth our dignity and strength to persevere. She is honored in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles shrine of the Relic of the Tilma of St. Juan Diego, the only piece in the United States of the actual cloth that bears the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is widely painted on liquor stores in East L.A.
In preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation, my class was invited to consider a service to the church that we had admired in the leaders, and I knew immediately which I would choose — I wanted to preach. I remember vividly the nervous excitement throughout my whole body. Two people in my class chose preaching, myself and Ben, and when it came time for us to work on our service projects, Ben was directed to meet with a priest, while our instructor only went over other options better suited for a young woman with me. I do not recall the service I ended up offering, but I can recall the Mass in which Ben was invited to give a short reflection after the deacon gave the homily, still feeling a bit of the sting of that day. He did an excellent job, and I was proud that our church allowed a member of our class the opportunity.
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As a Latina lay minister in the church, I have faced discrimination from those whom I serve and from a couple of the white priests who supervised me. I have known gifted and well-educated Latinas who have chosen to work for the church for a while but then moved on to other work because of the way they had been treated working in predominantly non-Latino communities, the ones who are able to afford a minister with their experience and education. Hearing the pope listen so intently to each person, reminding them of their worthiness was quite powerful. Pope Francis challenges the people to be joyously courageous, and I hope during his visit to the United States he might address the lack of Latino leadership that is disproportionate to the numbers in the pews as Nicole Sotelo points out in her recent Young Voices column.
In the virtual audience, after thanking Sr. Norma Pimentel for her work, and women religious in the United States for theirs, Pope Francis says, “Be courageous. Move forward. Take the lead, always.” When will we as church be willing to honor the faith of women throughout the world, who make up the majority of the people in the pews, to lead?
[April Gutierrez is a graduate of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry and is a campus minister for First-Year Experience at Loyola University Chicago.]
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