The shift is significant but perhaps not surprising. As Enrique Pumar, the chair of the sociology department at The Catholic University of America, explained to me: “The first (reason) is that there are other Christian churches that are making a concerted effort to basically practice and evangelize people in Latin America. The Catholic Church no longer has a monopoly. Today, people have options.”
He added that greater acceptance has also produced a cultural shift. In other words, it’s become acceptable within the Hispanic community to switch denominations. And, finally, many people are leaving institutionalized religions altogether. “They practice values on their own convenience,” Pumar said. “This is happening across the board with all religions.”
But even as the Hispanic community grows less monolithically Catholic, it still seems unified in its anticipation of this visit. Pope Francis is celebrated for his authenticity and, in some cases, for shaking up a calcified institution. Such moments have touched people around the world, not just Hispanic Americans. But when Francis arrives he’ll mostly be speaking Spanish—and to the Latino community in the United States, his visit offers a ray of hope at a difficult moment.
As of late, the community has been under the spotlight, as a result of Donald Trump’s controversial comments on Mexican immigrants being rapists and, during the latest GOP debate, the back and forth between Trump and Jeb Bush on whether candidates should speak Spanish on the campaign trail at all. The pope will, therefore, be speaking to a portion of the population that has faced hostility—and that matters.
“This is really significant to come to the U.S. and have a mass in a foreign language,” Pumar said, “This is a symbol of making people welcome, reaching out to this community. We are Latin Americans.” The pope, he added, “is going to energize the community.”
Churches in and near Washington, D.C., the pope’s first stop on his U.S. tour, reflect the shifting face of American Catholicism. Some churches in the area are offering more Spanish-language masses. Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Sterling, Virginia, for example, added a third Spanish mass in May to alleviate overcrowding in other masses. Father Patrick Cogan notes that it’s mostly a result of changing demographics.
A similar tale unfolds at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia where Spanish-language masses are attended by up to 2,000 people. Father Juan Puigbo, parochial vicar at All Saints Church, argues that while Francis speaking Spanish may make his message more accessible, there’s more to the excitement among the community. “I believe that what is impacting is his openness to speak about matters that are delicate and difficult...That also means being so natural,” Puigbo said, adding that he’s seen more people returning to the church.