You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Papa Do Preach

Andrew Sullivan goes to see Pope John Paul II in San Antonio, Texas

Wikimedia Commons

It was just after the pope mentioned the sacrament of penance that the woman in front of me keeled over, I don't think there was a connection. Despite the 115-degree sun, most of the rest of us at the open-air San Antonio mass managed to stay upright through the sermon, guilt or no guilt. It was a remarkably catholic collection. Next to me, about a half mile from the papal altar, was a poor Hispanic family, a small boy wrapped around his father's waist, clinging to a dusty portable stereo. His pregnant mother stood silently above him, her eyes focused on the distant pontiff. Three yards down were some prosperous Anglos, four blond kids lying down on a quilt with Sony Walkmans, reading the comic strips in the San Antonio Light and squabbling over the sunshades. Near the fence, a Vietnamese-American family. Under the only small tree was a solitary, elderly man who had sat there impassively since I arrived at dawn.

The pope's visit to the Southwest was billed as the easiest part of his American trip: geared toward devout Hispanic Catholics obedient to the pope and unperturbed by the great media issues of divorce, women priests, homosexuality, contraception. But that's not what the crowd looked like. Once the Immigration and Naturalization Service made it known that Mexicans needed car insurance for the trip across the border, about 150,000 stayed away. The faithful who showed up were Texans of all backgrounds, whose instinct as the pope went by was to click cameras rather than make the sign of the cross. Only a handful of people knelt after communion. The pre-mass warm-up was gospel music. The liturgy was worthy of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

John Paul, moreover, didn't sound as if he were preaching to the converted. The press chose to focus on one bland sentence urging compassion "in the face of complex human, social, and political realities," and turned it into an endorsement of the sanctuary movement. But the pope's real message was far bleaker. He reminded his audience of their mortality and the "awful possibility of eternal punishment, eternal separation from God, in what the Christian tradition calls hell." He urged the re-establishment of the sacrament of penance (avoiding the Vatican II phrase "sacrament of reconciliation"), the necessity of priestly celibacy, devotion to the blessed sacrament outside of the mass, and the importance of old-style catechism. Later that evening, in the heart of the barrio, he talked of the moral chaos of modern America and called on parishes to embrace those who had fallen away from the faith. The words: "Come back!" echoed through the public address system.

Why this sternness with the most devout? It has something to do with the real state of the Southwest Hispanic Church in America, which is facing a crisis just as acute as its counterparts in the rest of the country. Supposedly the bulwark and the future of the faith in America, Hispanic Catholicism is threatened by apathy and squeezed by fundamentalist Protestants on one side and a radical clergy on the other.

The noon mass at the Church of Saint Mary's in downtown San Antonio last Thursday gave an impression of unchanging fidelity. It was said at breakneck speed to about 40 elderly people (some of them veiled), followed by the novena, a series of traditional prayers reflecting on the life of the Virgin Mary, The sermon, from a robust Irish-American priest, discussed the mortal sin of missing mass on Sunday. The service ended with some wobbly, elderly singing of the "Ave Maria."

This may seem the archetype of Hispanic orthodoxy. It isn't. St. Mary's is the center of the sanctuary movement for illegal immigrants in San Antonio, and for the city's division of Dignity, the dissident Catholic gay group. The priest, Father Bill Davis, holds healing services every month, with improvised liturgy not officially sanctioned by the bishop. He is heavily involved in local politics, asks the congregation to join in the sermon, and is an open supporter of the Sandinistas. He talks of "the healing of social and historical sin," and instructs his congregation in "human rights and the present cultural biases and structural evils that harm a holistic lifestyle."

Despite the cliches, Father Bill is obviously a committed and holy man. After mass he invited me in for lunch, took calls dealing with new illegal immigrants, and welcomed two workmen—one of them a Vietnam veteran—whom he'd just helped find jobs. "Put your body where your faith is, or you haven't got any," he urged me. "Somehow you can't be a Christian and hear a human cry and not reply to it." Through his active parish work, and through the Church-dominated Communities Organized for Public Service, he helped to transform some of the squalor of the barrio by organizing the urban poor. His theology has the feel of being improvised as he goes along: "If Jesus walked these streets, would he care what your catechism was?"

In the poor West Side one of the largest parishes is Sacred Heart Church, in the center of the barrio, with 1,500 families on its books. The few dozen elderly couples at the Friday evening mass were assembled for a parish reunion (all of them now live elsewhere). During the sermon the priest took his microphone into the nave and, Phil Donahue-style, asked each of us where we came from; a Hispanic couple, celebrating their wedding anniversary, didn't understand the question and reiterated their names. The sermon was about how nice it was to be together again. On the altar, a banner read in Spanish: "Look for the structural causes of poverty."

Father Emil Wesselsky, the priest, has a problem with the Hispanic community: "I have a struggle to keep them away from their pious personal religion. We're still hung up, you see, on things like excessive devotion to the sacrament … we should look more to the social justice issues. If you leave them out, you've just destroyed Christianity." I asked him about Christ's distinction between God and Caesar: "Sure, but Caesar has got to be held responsible to the people, and we will hold his feet to the fire until he is." His anti-Protestantism is a curious variety: "Anything Protestants have today is really old Catholic, … All I'm trying to do is jump back to the old Catholicism." He recognized the problem of the drift of Hispanic Catholics, even in the barrio, to the fundamentalists.

It doesn't seem that way to wander around the neighborhood. The poverty of the houses is only matched by the garden shrines to Our Lady of Guadelupe and Our Lady of San Juan, commemorating appearances of the Virgin Mary. On the walls of the public housing slums there are vast murals, painted by children, depicting the lives of saints, Mexican heroes, and the Crucifixion, On Saturday afternoon, in a San Fernando graveyard, there was a dazzling display of traditional Mexican-American Catholicism. At the funeral of Mr, Gomez, a mariachi band played Mexican tunes in loud brass in the noon sun, drowned out only by the wailing of children and women. All around them, graves were decorated traditionally: the dead's favorite beer left on the tombstones for the adults, toys left on children's graves, pictures of couples inlaid into the plaques, even if only one of them has died.

Still, a mere four blocks away, the Asambleas de Dios Pentecostal church is booming. A 24-year-old Hispanic, Joe Cordero, tells his story. He was a stillborn child, but survived, something his mother had asked of Our Lady of Guadelupe. When he was ten, she took him to the shrine at Guadelupe in thanks: "I told my mom, that thing's not alive, that thing's dead. She slapped me across the face. Ever since then, I never believed in the saints.... I think Jesus Christ can do it now," His faith was his own: "It has to be a personal deal." Part of his complaint against Catholicism is its liberalism: "You can have a 12 o'clock mass and at 8 o'clock that night, you're selling beer and wine to the constituents." He might also have been put off by a church whose clergy has, until very recently, been overwhelmingly non-Hispanic. On the gay issue, he cited Sodom and Gomorrah.

"You go to a Baptist church, and you feel more formal, more spiritual" is how 30-year-old ex-Catholic Deborah Akia put it. "I went back to church once, and the sign of the cross was gone—that's the heart of religion. When I was small, even though it was Latin, and I didn't understand a word of it, you could feel the presence. Now you look down the aisle, and they're in T-shirts and sneakers, ... It's a shame." She's now an Assembly of God Pentecostalist.

In response to the growing number of fundamentalist conversions, the Catholics, as Father Emil showed, have embraced the Pentecostal approach. It has not been an easy process. The Cathedral of San Fernando captures the awkward balance many churches now strike between new-style Bible-Belt fervor and old-style Hispanic devotion. It has dramatizations of the gospels and healing services, but retains benediction (adoration of the blessed sacrament) and regular confession. Father Virgil Elizondo explains: "It's not ignorance that holds onto these practices, ... They're not backward in any way." As we walked past the church a young professional woman asked him to bless her scapular, a small religious medallion around her neck.

San Fernando has embraced, willy-nilly, the diversity that the Second Vatican Council unleashed on the Church, but its Hispanic emphasis remains. The approach to Church discipline avoids the Northeastern preoccupation with what one priest called the "pelvic issues." Father Virgil, asked whether homosexuality is a sin, replied, "Sure it is, but so is avarice." His approach is to deal concretely, rather than intellectually, with the problems of the faithful: case by case, soul by soul. The result is that the Hispanic Church may seem quieter, less troubled, less vocal than its Northern and Eastern counterparts, but that does not mean that the same problems do not exist. "We don't need special services for gays in the Church: they're already in the Church, have always been in the Church" is how Father Virgil put it. He prefers to deal with the problems on the ground rather than in the newspapers. In short, he keeps them in the family. The moral law stays, the pope is cheered; but when he's gone, the quiet haggling begins.

There’s another reason for the comparative silence in the pelvic debate. The big problems in San Antonio are electricity bills, immigration forms, and joblessness. The Church in the Southwest, dealing with illegal immigrants, poverty, illness, and refugees from the war in Central America, is in some ways comparable to the Church in India, Poland, and Africa in its delicate balance between spirituality and social action. In the San Fernando rectory, Father Roberto Paderes, a young, bearded Guatemalan refugee, lives in the same room as Geraldo, an illegal immigrant from Costa Rica. Geraldo is 24 years old and, in an accident in illegal work, was nearly electrocuted on a power line. He lost one leg and two fingers on both hands, as well as suffering severe burns. Seven months later in the rectory he seemed fully at home. This is just one testimony to the inspiring social work the Church is doing in the Southwest. But there's a connection here with the decline of the Church's popularity. The tendency to turn the Church into an essentially political and social, rather than spiritual, organization is greater than ever. This leaves religion to the fundamentalists, who are only too eager to welcome a flock seeking more spiritual guidance.

Sensing this, the pope's message to seminarians in San Fernando Cathedral was a call simply for more religion. In the wake of Vatican II, growing secularization, doctrinal confusion, and liturgical decay, John Paul II reaffirmed the necessity for a disciplined spirituality, of a kind Hispanic Catholicism used to be renowned for. He even went so far as to affirm the virtues of unworldliness: "What you do is important, but what you are is even more important: more important for the world, more important for the Church, more important for Christ." The message of John Paul throughout the American trip was daringly simple: a liberal social and economic activism needs a conservative doctrinal and spiritual base. It's a radical but effortlessly Catholic philosophy, and the importance of the Southwest is that it's the crucible for the experiment. John Paul understands this. He also understands that if it doesn't work here, it won't work anywhere. He could soon have an American Church that is Catholic in nothing more tangible than its name.