Second Thought: Wednesday, April 13, 2005
A Pope for the Barrio

The world needs another Catholic leader who cares about social justice.

By Dan McGraw

My grandmother came to this country from Ireland in 1900. She was 10 years old, and her parents couldn’t afford to keep her on their farm in County Roscommon. One of her great-uncles was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and so she came here to make a new life. But the new life wasn’t that great at the start. Her job was at her great-uncle’s bar across from an iron works factory. Back then, the bars had a trough that ran on the floor by the bar, a place where the men could piss without having to leave their beers.
One of my grandmother’s first jobs was to make sure the drain at the end of the piss trough was kept clean and free-flowing. She was a young kid, never going to see her parents again, and spending her days making sure guys could piss without getting the overflow on their boots.
But part of the reason my grandmother made it from piss-trough cleaner to success in America was the Catholic Church. It was a religious institution for sure, but it was also the place where immigrants could find social, cultural, economic, educational, and political solace. In the 1940s, my grandmother was head of her parish’s PTA, and part of her job was to put the pressure on local politicians to make sure the local Irish Catholics were part of the political process. This political process was based in religion, but also used the church as a secular political organization where the immigrants could use their numbers to make gains for their community.
I thought about my grandmother quite a bit while watching the news of the death and funeral of John Paul II during the past few weeks. For all of its recent problems — pedophile priests, its continuing ban on contraception, keeping women out of the priesthood — the American Roman Catholic Church still has the numbers to be a potent force on the political landscape.
One of the things John Paul II did was to make politics part of his mission. The Polish pope saw the Nazis rape his homeland, saw Communists push aside human rights — through political and military means — and remembered his upbringing. He told the Chinese to stop persecuting Christians, told the Irish Republican Army they were terrorists, went to Africa and held the dictatorial regimes accountable for the starvation of their people. He even lectured George W. Bush that the war in Iraq was wrong.
The key question now is who comes next and whether the new pope will be able to build upon the political gains John Paul II made. And to accomplish that, the best thing the Roman Catholic cardinals can do right now is elect a pope from Latin America.
“The main issue is to choose a very real and very good person,” said the Rev. Claudio Zudaire, pastor of Our Lady Of Guadalupe Catholic Church on Fort Worth’s North Side. “But if the new pope is one who has a heart that was formed in Latin America, he will understand a little better the needs of our people.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s congregation is 80 percent Hispanic. Like many Catholic priests in Texas, the Rev. Zudaire finds himself in the role of facilitator in helping new immigrants. But the Catholic Church has dropped the ball in recent years. There are not enough priests to do much more than say masses and hear confessions. The new pope must figure out a way to restore the church to an institution that is both spiritual, social, and political.
Part of the issue here is that evangelical Christians have used their base in this country — and therefore on the world scene — to move their issues forward. Nothing wrong with that. But their issues tend not to be about economic inclusion of the poor among us or helping immigrants. The local Catholic churches need to use their power, and their Mexican-American numbers, to make sure this group is part of the process.
A Latin American pope would not change everything on the local parish level. But that kind of new leadership could send a sign that basic human issues — restoring human dignity, stopping persecution, helping the working class — will be put in the forefront. This could help Mexican-American Catholics realize they have the ability — and backing of the church — to move their issues forward into the local and national agenda.
There are no 10-year-old Mexican-American immigrant girls cleaning out piss troughs in this country these days. But though their starting point in life may not be as gritty as my grandmother’s, their futures also may not be as bright as hers was. That’s where the Catholic Church needs to be involved. A pope from Latin America could inspire these young immigrants to think they can make a difference.
It’s not that the Catholic church needs to become politically radical. It just needs to have a voice. As the Bush administration is cutting programs that help the poor, the churches in this country need to step forward. And that includes Catholics. Picking a pope with a Latin background would be a major step for Hispanic Catholics in this country — and others — toward gaining a moral and political voice that matters.

Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance journalist.

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