Minorities Shape Modern Catholic Church

The Pope's visit carried a special significance for Catholics of color, who are helping define the increasingly diverse church. Washington Post religion reporter Hamil Harris and two Catholics who attended the Pope's public mass discuss the meaning the pontiff's visit to Catholic of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

To see a photo slideshow of Pope Benedict's first public Mass in the U.S., please visit our website at npr.org/tellmemore. And as the gentleman said, there were all kinds of people at yesterday's Mass. The Catholic community is quite diverse, especially here in Washington, D.C. And the Pope's visit has been a tremendous event for Catholics of all backgrounds.

Joining us now to talk about this is Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris. He's been covering Pope Benedict's journey in Washington. We're also joined by two local Catholics, Timothy Tillman(ph) and Raul Yapez(ph). They both attended the Mass on Thursday. Welcome. Congratulations.

Mr. HAMIL HARRIS (Reporter, The Washington Post): It's good to be here.

Mr. TIMOTHY TILLMAN (Local Catholic Parishioner): It's good to be here. Thank you.

Mr. RAUL YAPEZ (Local Catholic Parishioner): Thank you.

MARTIN: Hamil, could you set the scene for us, yesterday at the Mass?

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: If you would just describe the atmosphere.

Mr. HARRIS: I mean, first of all, I mean, you had this open-air church experience. I mean, with the music, the arias. I mean, you know, you had the- these opera singers. You had the priest and the vestments and stuff. And my experience really started on the subway, when we were just kind of crammed into the Metro Green Line.

And everybody was going to the same spot. Even upstage to rush hour traffic. And you saw - I was lucky to meet a man who actually held a microphone for the pontiff as he delivered his homily. And you just had this experience - people said it was like a train to heaven.

So, you had this excitement and images that I will never forget. What - the diversity, the people from many races. But again, this is primarily a family celebration within the Catholic Church. I didn't see as many people outside of the church community. There's the folks from the street corner who are not Catholics, and stuff like that. We had this scene at Catholic University, but the bottom line is that this was a good day, two days, for the Catholic Church.

MARTIN: Raul, what did it mean to you to be there?

Mr. YAPEZ: To me, I was there at many levels. One is I'm a youth minister, so I brought my teens with me. And they were ecstatic to be there. They loved it. And for me, myself, it was just such a wonderful experience to able to be there. And I was actually very close to the Pope because, as a youth minister, they give us very, very good tickets for the youth. So I was right behind the altar. And it was just such an inspiring experience. And it was just wonderful.

MARTIN: But can you explain why? And the reason I ask is that a lot of people felt that this Pope just had not connected with Americans, and particularly with young people, in the way that his predecessor had. So if you could talk about what it was that was so magical about it?

Mr. YAPEZ: I definitely agree that JP2 was so, I don't know, but for some reason he was - you could tell - he spent most of his pontiff as speaking out to the youth and that was what he was about. And it was so easy to understand what JP2 wanted.

Mr. HARRIS: That's John Paul II, is that what he's talking about?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HARRIS: Oh.

Mr. YAPEZ: Sorry. Yeah, JP2 is the little, like, lingo for John Paul II.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But somehow, this man's did connect with you. You felt a sense of his - the presence.

Mr. YAPEZ: He did. And one of the things is he - one of the first encyclicals he wrote as pontiff was "Deus Caritas Est," which is "God is Love." And one of the things he - even though it's - I guess he's not as vocal or as easily seen in the media and everywhere else, so people don't see him as much.

But his messages tend to be about love and hope. And because being at this Mass, he gave a homily, you're able to understand and talk to him. Or not talk to him, but hear him talk to you. So you get a better sense of his message.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going to play a little bit of that in just a minute. But Timothy, first I want to hear from you. What did it mean to you to be at the Mass yesterday?

Mr. TILLMAN: It's very important to be with the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. And it's the spiritual leader of the Christian community. And I was thinking about the questions people always talk about the Pope and the Catholic Church.

One of the great things to take a look at, a Presbyterian minister wrote a note in the Washington Post on Sunday, and said, "This is a great spiritual leader. I'm glad to hear the message that he's going to deliver to the world. And this is going to alter the way that I try to live out my faith."

And I have this anticipation that this great spiritual leader is going to go ahead and do something for me. And the Pope is the person - he accesses the person of Christ. So, I'm anticipating to learn how to be more Christ-like from observing and watching him and trying to be real about how that's done.

MARTIN: Raul talked about the message of love. I want to play just a short clip from the Pope's homily. We can obviously only just play just a very short clip of what he had to say. But here it is.

(Soundbite of homily)

Pope BENEDICT XVI: The Church in the United States is now called to look to the future, firmly grounded in the faith passed on by previous generations, and ready to meet new challenges, challenges no less demanding than those faced by your forebears, with the hope born of God's love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

MARTIN: Hemil, what challenges do you think he was talking about?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges is internal and not external. He talked about God's love, and I think he - not only did he make this homily, but he followed up with a meeting, a personal meeting, with some victims who had been abused by Catholic priests in the Church. So he did not just talk about love from the pulpit, but he made it personal.

And I think he was telling people that we need to practice God's love as a Church, as a priesthood, as a leadership team, and let experience- and I think the world is so hungry for leadership that accepts responsibility and goes beyond just war and other things. So I think a lot of folks were listening to this message and also what he did while he was in Washington.

MARTIN: Was it a surprise that he had this meeting? I know that...

Mr. HARRIS: There wasn't...

MARTIN: There was that criticism that he didn't go to Boston, which was kind of ground zero of the sexual abuse crisis, even though there have been, you know, cases all over, you know, the country, but...

Mr. HARRIS: Right, I mean, it was a surprise. But some things are kind of planed surprises. I think people expected him to make overture to the greater community and to address this. He was talking on the plane. Michelle Boorstein was on the plane with the Pope coming over, so he's been talking about it. But the question is what happens when he goes back? You know, will he put things in place? People will say, OK, how do we continue to heal?

MARTIN: Timothy, how do you react to the Pope's meeting with the survivors of sexual abuse? And I'd like to know, does this issue - I mean, this is an issue that is much discussed in the media. Obviously, it's an issue that causes great pain for people who have been affected by this, as well as for the broader Church.

But did you think it was important that the Pope had that meeting? Some people think that perhaps it - as important as it may have been to individuals, perhaps, some people think, well, maybe it distracted from the larger message. What do you think?

Mr. TILLMAN: I don't think it distracted from a larger message. The Pope conveys a message of love and hope. If someone is hurt and he has the opportunity to engage them, he's going to meet with them, and try to make that statement, that I bring the love of Christ into the world and I do the best that I can do there.

And that's what he did and that's what he will continue to do. So he met with those who were victimized in sexual abuse. He met with folks from the Nation of Islam, after going through the Koran, not to make a great political statement, but to say you're created in God's image and likeness.

It doesn't matter that you're Catholic. It doesn't matter whether or not you like me or you agree with the things that I do. I love the person that you are, and I want to see the Christ in you come out, so that you can be all that you can be.

MARTIN: Forgive me if this question is too personal, but I wondered, has this issue of clergy abusing children, has that been a challenge to your faith?

Mr. TILLMAN: No, it's not a challenge to my faith, not at all.

MARTIN: Mm hm. Hemil?

Mr. HARRIS: I think it's interesting, though. I was with a group of seminaries, you know, guys going to be priests, and I asked them, I said, you know, it's been rough for you guys. People see a guy in an outfit and they say OK, how you dealing with this? And they said this was so encouraging, just to be there, just to feel good about being a priest, just to feel good while wearing a collar.

And I talked to these young men, and I think that's one of the biggest things that he did, is that there's no shame to be a priest anymore, or they're hoping this will start some momentum where they can kind of repair the image of the priesthood.

MARTIN: You know, I've heard people say that. I've heard friends of mine who are priests say that there's been times - obviously, people take up the Cross. That's part of the faith, but there have been times when, sort of, wearing the collar has evoked reactions from people that have sometimes been very uncomfortable. Raul, the - I wanted to ask you about the question of how the Pope has reached out to the Latino community...

Mr. YAPEZ: Mm hm.

MARTIN: Which is, of course, a very significant and growing part of the Catholic Church there.

Mr. YAPEZ: Well, one of the things, especially with the Mass, I was extremely, just over - like blown away by the fact that there was - so much of it was done in Spanish. He had - there were a lot of the songs that they did in the Mass were done in Spanish and were actually very - were songs - I actually spent a year in Ecuador doing volunteer service last year.

And one of the songs that we sang with the people there in Ecuador, the poor people in the small towns, one of the songs that we used to sing they had at the Mass. So it was such a wonderful experience to have that song there, and take me back all the way to Ecuador. And the fact that when he did his homily, he did it in English first, but then he did it in Spanish.

And I was very - it was it was very interesting, his Spanish accent is better than his English accent I think. And when he was speaking in Spanish, it was almost more lively, I feel, and it was just so inspiring and comforting to have him speaking in Spanish and saying things specifically to the Latino...

MARTIN: You felt truly welcome. You felt truly included.

Mr. YAPEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Timothy, you told me, you're studying to be a deacon, if I understand that right?

Mr. TILLMAN: That's correct.

MARTIN: Are you concerned - one of the challenges that the Church faces is the next generation of clergy. Are you - does this - is this visit, as Hemil was saying, do more to inspire people to take up that role?

Mr. TILLMAN: I would hope that it would be. I would hope for something else. The Pope comes - he came to celebrate Mass. That's the source and summit of the - the source and summit of the celebration of the Catholic faith. But this is something we do every day, except for Good Friday.

The messages that come from our priests and our bishops are equally compelling on those Sundays and those weekdays that we gather, and I would hope that the community would be inspired that way. And I think it's important the Church, the people I worship with in Southeast are going to do more to convert the community than the Pope appearing at the Stadium.

So we need to take that message of his love, we need to be the body of Christ as we were gathered there in the stadium, and we need to be the body of Christ on the streets of Southeast, and in suburbs, and in the places where young Latino people gather, where the African community gathers here, where the poor and others gather and be the person of Christ. That's what's going to grow the Church.

MARTIN: This is what I was going to ask you, is the most meaningful part of the visit the Pope's personal presence? Or is it what he brings together?

Mr. TILLMAN: I think the most meaningful part of the visit is looking at the body of Christ and looking how diverse it is. So it's great for Raul to come and say, I'm part of the body of Christ. I'm young.

I'm Latino. I heard the Church speaking to me. I heard Christ speaking to me. It's not the Pope speaking. The Pope acts in the person of Christ. I heard Christ speaking to me. I heard that. There are countless others that don't look like anybody that's in the studio that felt that same way.

Mr. HARRIS: Well..

MARTIN: OK, very briefly, Hemil.

Mr. HARRIS: I think the body's going to grow. I think that's the key thing. I mean, everybody likes this diversity, but the bottom line is, will there be more African American priests? Will there be more African American growth? I mean, the Church is in the shadow of a black parish and you don't see - you know, a lot of people weren't there.

So again, I think the Church still has a big challenge. You know, there's more Spanish people there. The Church has exploded in Latin American countries. But in the United States, in inner cities, there's a big challenge. There's a lot of empty pews on Sunday mornings, so this Church still has a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: Hemil, very, very, very briefly, where does the Pope go next?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, he goes to New York physically, and then he goes, and he's still expanding his message, and I think the bottom line is that he continues to keep this message going.

MARTIN: All right. Hemil Harris is a reporter for the Washington Post. He's been covering the Pope's visit to Washington. Timothy Tillman is a Washington-area Catholic and community organizer who is training to be a deacon. Raul Yapez is also Roman Catholic. He's a youth outreach worker and a youth minister. And I thank you all so much for joining me here in the studio.

Mr. YAPEZ: You're very welcome.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

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