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Latino Chicago Parishioners Hold High Hopes For The Pope's Visit


Washington is normally pretty blase about visiting leaders, but the pope's visit this coming week appears to be different. People are coming to town. Hotels are already filling up. Traffic is already jammed. Father Manuel Dorantes says the pope's visit will have special meaning for his parish, the Church of the Immaculate Conception on 44th in southwest Chicago. The Mexican-born priest told me most of his parishioners are, like Francis, from Latin America. Most of them are undocumented. Many are poor. I asked him what the people in his pews are hoping to hear from Francis.

MANUEL DORANTES: I think what my community hopes to hear is a message of embrace, an embrace of their reality, specifically the issue of immigration, the issue of violence that is affecting our city, the issue of families being segregated because of the immigration issue and racism, to be honest with you. It's a constant battle for my community.

WERTHEIMER: You said families are segregated - separated, you mean? Like some of them are back home in whatever country they left?

DORANTES: Yes, on one end, it's people who have left their home countries and the family members that are still back home. And also, people who have been separated through our deportation system.

WERTHEIMER: The Holy Father will preside at a mass of canonization when he's in Washington for Father Junipero Serra. Do you think your parishioners will take notice of that? Will they care about it?

DORANTES: Definitely. To them, it's a point of pride in recognizing that this man, who is now going to be recognized as a saint of the church, was a missionary, and he went out of his own experience in Spain to come to the new world. And it's very much a similar type of experience for them. That's the experience of many of my parishioners - coming from their own country, leaving their country behind and coming into a new reality.

And so the fact that he is becoming a saint, the fact that the Pope is canonizing him and the very fact that Junipero Serra, the very first time that he brought the gospel to the United States - at least to the Southwest part of the United States - he did it in Spanish, in the language of my community. It's an immense point of pride and joy in knowing that one of our own will become a saint in this nation.

WERTHEIMER: The first American-Hispanic saint.


WERTHEIMER: But it's also true that there are some native communities that are concerned because they think that a lot of people died - a lot of native-born people died when the Europeans came to the United States. Is that concerning?

DORANTES: You know, from our experiences, these Latino immigrants - did this constantly, right, going back to the colonization. You know, it's literally the Franciscans were baptizing - my forefathers, my foremothers were baptizing them. And soldiers were basically pointing swords towards them. That's part in parcel of the way we have received the faith.

Now, it's important to recognize that one thing that often happens is that we begin to see a reality of the 16th century with eyes and with the knowledge that we have in 2015. On the other hand, though, there are things that are defensible, and there are things that are not defensible. And the mistreatment of a human being is not acceptable. And the church claims in her teaching that a saint is not perfect. And often, I think, that's when we get into the struggle. We assume that because the person is being canonized that they were doing everything right. That's not what the church really understands.

WERTHEIMER: Are you excited about the fact that Pope Francis is going to be travelling around the United States, meeting with all sorts of people, Catholics and others as well?

DORANTES: I am. I think our young people and my community is looking for him to build bridges. Not just to come and just reaffirm Catholics or to confirm Latino Catholics and their faith. To bring people who are maybe very different, who may think differently, who may have different ideologies, different political agendas, and to provide an encounter between them. Our country is completely divided, where we have proponents who claim that what we need is walls - walls of separation. And you can, you know, apply this to either the economy or to social issues.

And so at a point where our country is so divided, I hope and I'm so excited - I really can't wait to hear, you know, many of his speeches. But the one of, really, a lot of significance, for me at least through symbolism, is going to be when he makes that address at Independence Mall, where he'll be using the podium that President Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address. And I feel that we're in a different time today, but yet the situation is very similar to what President Lincoln had to deal with back in his day - a country that was divided.

And through that speech, at least historians claim that, that speech really turned things, turned the wave, you know, for the North and the South to be united again and for brothers to recognize that they were killing their own brothers. The pope is going to be using the same podium. And my hope is that as we are so divided politically, ethnically, racially - you name it, the division exists and it's very tangible - that he will be able to build bridges among us. And that's why I'm so excited.

WERTHEIMER: Father Manuel Dorantes, he's the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Chicago. Thank you very much.

DORANTES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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