Heritage of Pope Francis seen as a blessing

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Excited by Pope Francis’ humility and attention to the poor, local Catholics from Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Cuba and other parts of Latin America are celebrating the election of a Latino pope.

Juan Afals came to the United States from Cuba four years ago. Afals said he was surprised by the new pope’s humility and regard for the poor. (Record Photo by Jessica Able)
Juan Afals came to the United States from Cuba four years ago. Afals said he was surprised by the new pope’s humility and regard for the poor. (Record Photo by Jessica Able)

A standing-room only congregation at St. Rita Church’s Spanish Mass Sunday applauded the “nuevo papa” at the opening of the liturgy.

St. Joseph Church in Butchertown marked the election of Pope Francis with a Mass and a celebration afterward with cake.

“It’s a blessing to the whole church,” said Deacon Aurelio Puga, a native of Mexico who served at the St. Rita Mass Sunday.

Among Latino Catholics, “there’s a feeling that he understands the struggles,” of people in Latin America “because he lived through them,” Deacon Puga noted. “Pope Francisco understands people’s suffering and he’s willing to serve the poor.

“I think he’s going to show that the church is for everyone — it’s universal,” he added.

The humility and simplicity the pope has shown in the days since his election are genuine, said Maria Bentel, a native of Argentina and a member of Holy Trinity Church.

She hasn’t met the pontiff personally, but her cousin is married to his nephew. And the pope is well-known among her family members.

“That’s the kind of person he is, actually. He is really close to the people and he is really humble,” she said. “He was the head of the church in Argentina. And still he was really close to everybody. He is such a low profile person, if you don’t pay attention, you don’t know who he is. He acts like just another priest.”

Bentel said she’s glad that he’s now serving as an example to the world.

“I think the message for the church in a global way is amazing — he is really giving the message from Jesus,” she said.

The pope’s example to the Archdiocese of Louisville — especially for Hispanic Catholics here — is an important one, said Eva Gonzalez, the director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry.

“I’m very excited by the fact that we have the first Latin American pope. This shows that the Catholic Church is universal,” she said during an interview
last week.

Gonzalez, whose family is from Mexico, said that the election of Pope Francis
will likely help Latin American Catholics to see their role in the church differently.

“I think they will see they can be leaders,” she said. “Sometimes you just need one person to plant the
seeds and after that maybe we will see a huge growth.”

She sees his election as a call for the Hispanic community to consider, “What, as an Hispanic Catholic, can I offer to the universal church, starting with my parish?”

Claudia Peralta-Mudd, a member of St. Joseph Church and a native of Argentina, described the election as a blessing to Latin American Catholics.

She followed the papal election as it unfolded March 13 with intensity, not because she expected a Latino pope, but because “I’m a religious person, so I’m very in tune with what it means to elect a new pope,” she said.

When she heard he was from Argentina, she said, “It was double emotion. The fact that we had a Latino pope, and the fact that he was from Argentina — I was totally in heaven.”

She hopes that his connection to South America — where he saw first-hand the plight of people living in poverty — will lead to change in that part of the world.
Now that he is pope, she pointed out, he has access to the continent’s leaders.

“I have great expectations for social change. As Catholics, we have a responsibility for that,” she said. “In July, he’s going to Brazil”
for World Youth Day. “I think that will certainly start the conversation.”

Juan Afals, who came to the United States from Cuba four years ago, holds the same hope.

During the St. Rita celebration, he said that the election of Pope Francis “is very important because maybe he will look more at South America.”

“I’ve been very surprised by his humility, especially toward the poor. In the situation the church is in now, that’s going to be of ultimate importance,” said Afals, who is active at St. Rita and is a former parish council president of his parish in Cuba. “He’s already left behind some of the Vatican symbols of richness.”

Gloria Hernandez, another member of St. Rita Church, hopes that the new pope will be like Blessed John Paul II — charismatic and good with people.

Already, she said, “I love him — first that he is representing the image of St. Francis and that he represents the diversity in the church.”

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