Youth, Latinos React to Pope's Visit We examine the demographic shift occuring among Catholics in the United States. Then, Youth Radio brings us the voices of several young Catholics in the Bay Area. One admits she didn't even know that the pope was coming.
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Youth, Latinos React to Pope's Visit

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Youth, Latinos React to Pope's Visit

Youth, Latinos React to Pope's Visit

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From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, what's old is new again. Italy calls back Silvio Berlusconi to run the government.

BRAND: But first, Pope Benedict the 16th arrives at Andrews Air Force base today for his first official visit to the United States. President Bush greets him there. Then, the Pope will meet this evening with U.S. Catholic leaders.

CHADWICK: While the pontiff is in this country, he'll see that the church here is in transformation. Once, it was predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish.

BRAND: Now, nearly a third of U.S. Catholics are Latino, and they're having a growing influence on the Church. Rob Schmitz, of member station KQED, reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: The briskly moving silhouette of Father Jarlath Cunnane cuts through the sweet-smelling smoke lazily drifting from an incense burner backstage at the L.A. Convention Center. He's already presided over two Masses in Spanish at his neighborhood church, each with a thousand Latino worshipers. 4,000 more wait here, on the other side of the stage. Loosing parishioners, a problem for Catholic churches in other parts of the country, is not something that worries Cunnane.

Father JARLATH CUNNANE (Pastor, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Los Angeles): Many of the dioceses back on the East Coast, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, have had to close inner city churches. At our church, we seat a thousand people. We do nine Masses on Sunday. They're all full. So you know, from where we sit, it's - we're just almost overwhelmed.

SCHMITZ: According to a recent study by the Pew Forum, no other major faith in the U.S. has lost as many members in the last few decades as the Catholic Church has. One-third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. That gap is being filled by a surge in Latino Catholics, many of whom are recent immigrants. Latinos now make up more than half of all Catholics in the Western U.S., and they've brought a style of worship that has energized the church.

Father Cunnane's Mass is about to begin. Worshipers rise in unison and clap their hands with the rhythm of a rock group beside the altar. The screaming guitar piercing the air is more reminiscent of a Santana concert than a Catholic Mass. This celebration of Christ is one big fiesta.

(Soundbite of Spanish music)

SCHMITZ: As the chorus begins, Jumbo-Tron screens on both sides of the stage show Father Cunnane walking down the main aisle. Parishioners surround him, raising their hands over their heads. Many of them pour out into the aisle behind him to dance. This particular Mass is sponsored by a ministry within the church called El Sembrador, Spanish for "the Sower." The ministry takes a charismatic approach to worship, which isn't traditionally Catholic, but more like a Pentecostal service.

The Pew Survey found that, among Latino-Catholics who attend church, six out of 10 say they attend these types of non-traditional Masses. One might think this style of worship would butt heads with the more ritualistic, stoic worship style in the traditional Catholic Church. Not so, says Pew's Luis Lugo.

Mr. LUIS LUGO (Director, Pew Forum): Of the Latinos who adopt charismatic kinds of practices, they are, if anything, more likely to be connected to the Church. Rather than using that experience as a half-way house out of Catholicism, it actually seems to integrate them even closer to the Church.

(Soundbite of Spanish Mass)

SCHMITZ: As Mass at the L.A. Convention Center wraps up, Adrian Jeronimo (ph) looks exhilarated. Jeronimo credits his renewed Catholic faith for saving his life. He says the pressure of living as an illegal immigrant drove him to drinking and an addiction to crystal meth. His behavior almost destroyed his family. A year ago, he started coming to church again.

(Soundbite of Mr. Adrian Jeronimo speaking Spanish)

SCHMITZ: Speaking in Spanish, Jeronimo says his dream in coming to this country was to succeed here, and he says he found God. He says the discovery was marvelous.

Jeronimo's story is typical of many Latino immigrants in Father Cunnane's parish. For years now, the Catholic Church has been active in protecting immigrants and standing up for their rights. Cunnane says the isolation of living illegally in a foreign land creates a more urgent need for a relationship with God.

Father CUNNANE: The tragedy and harshness of life does send people looking for spirituality, does ask ultimate questions. And so folks have to depend - they cannot simply be independent. They must help one another to survive.

SCHMITZ: Cunnane says the Latino immigrants who arrive to his church remind him of the very first Christians who were persecuted in Jerusalem and were forced into exile. Like those early Christians, Cunnane says these new parishioners, who are striving for a better life for their families, might be God's way of renewing the Catholic Church in the United States. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

BRAND: Many American Catholics, especially younger ones, believe it's not necessary to go to Mass. That's according to a poll conducted at Georgetown University.

CHADWICK: And it raises a question, what do young Catholics have to say about their religious practices and the significance of the Pope?

BRAND: Youth Radio asked Jasmine Escobar (ph) and Leslie Celenas (ph), who attend a Catholic high school here in California, to weigh in.

Ms. JASMINE ESCOBAR (Student of a Catholic High School): Isn't it funny how we go to a Catholic school, but we didn't even know the Pope was coming?

(Soundbite of chime music)

Ms. LESLIE CELENAS (Student of a Catholic High School): Yeah, I had no idea that the Pope was coming. I didn't even know that we had a new Pope until you brought it up to me at school.

Ms. ESCOBAR: OK, I knew that, but I didn't know that he was coming to the U.S.

Ms. CELENAS: Like to my grandma, the pope is like, this like big guy. Like he's so holy that she would like have to kneel down to him if she saw him. But to me it's like, OK, he's just some other guy. I don't know, like he's not that big to me. I don't know.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ESCOBAR: I mean it's, it's like, kind of like a symbol of Catholicism.


Ms. ESCOBAR: It's not really a...

Ms. CELENAS: But I don't feel like he's - or like, I've been personally, like, touched by him or...

Ms. ESCOBAR: Yeah, intrigued by what he's doing.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah. So he's not so big in my life.

Ms. ESCOBAR: I don't really think for the youth it's that touching as, like their grandparents or even their parents. Some parents are like, you know, taking their young children to see...

Ms. CELENAS: Ahah.

Ms. ESCOBAR: But for me it's like...

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah.


Ms. CELENAS: But I think like before, the Pope used to be like so much more in the teachings. And now, that is like now, we don't even hear about it. So like, how do they expect us to be touched by him or to be, like, impressed?

Ms. ESCOBAR: I haven't even seen a picture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ESCOBAR: I think, for me, I'm religious but I don't practice it...

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah.

Ms. ESCOBAR: As much as other people would.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah, I think I'm the same way. Like, I might be a Catholic, but I'm more towards like the focus of God and Jesus and like, the main message. I'm not so much about religion and like, all the practices.

Ms. ESCOBAR: Like to go to Mass every Sunday.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah, like - really, the Mass that I go to every Sunday, or that I used to go to, I didn't really get anything out of it and like...

Ms. ESCOBAR: I think I'm the same way, and I think - it's not like you need to go to an actual church to be Catholic.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah.

Ms. ESCOBAR: Or religious. You can practice your own like rituals at your home.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah.

Ms. ESCOBAR: Or wherever you find a sacred place.

Ms. CELENAS: And it's not like you have to be in front of so many people to, like, pray or have a connection with God. You can have your own connection with God, like in your own room, like on your bed, just praying to Him for like 20 minutes or an hour every night. You don't have to go to church. You don't have to show everyone, like "Oh, look, I'm a Catholic."

Ms. ESCOBAR: Catholic.

Ms. CELENAS: So I believe in God.

Ms. ESCOBAR: We both believe in him.

Ms. CELENAS: Yeah.

BRAND: 16-year-old Leslie Salinas and 17-year-old Jasmine Escobar attend high school in Berkeley, California. Youth Radio sent us their conversation.

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