Pope Francis is in the midst of his second trip to the Americas in less than a year. After touching down Friday in Havana, he has spent the past four days in Mexico. For many, the high point of his trip will be an outdoor Mass Wednesday near the U.S.-Mexico border. In a gesture expected to have widespread implications, the Pope will greet immigrants on the fence between El Paso, Texas and Cuidad Juarez in Mexico.
Joseph Boland is vice president of Catholic Extension, a national service organization based in Chicago that helped organize the Pope's border visit. Boland says Francis has come mainly as a pastor, but his symbolic embrace of undocumented immigrants from the border region also sends a strong signal about his priorities.
"He wants to put himself in the shoes of the people who have approached that border, who are facing many struggles," Boland says. "This act of celebrating a Mass at the border fence and coming up to the fence is a way for him to put himself in solidarity with the people who have walked that walk."
Hispanics are key to the future growth of the Catholic Church. They currently account for 40 percent of Catholics in the U.S., and represent one of the youngest segments, with a majority of those members under the age of 35. However, the church faces a challenge as many Hispanics leave the Catholic faith for evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant churches. Today, about one in four Latino adults describes himself or herself as a former Catholic, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.
The largest concentration of Hispanic Catholics lives on the U.S. -Mexico line in some of the most impoverished parishes in the country. Catholic Extension helps support most of those parishes, sending about $1 million annually in privately raised funds to the area for the construction of churches, community programs and lay leadership training.
Boland said that when the pope addressed the U.S. Congress last September, he urged Americans to listen to the stories of immigrants. "For the people who live there who are often forgotten, who are on the margins, who perhaps ... have no voice at the table, he is going to shine a light on them, on their reality," Boland added.
In this far-ranging interview, Boland also talks about the reaction to the visit of Catholics living on the border. He also addresses the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric emerging in the Republican presidential primaries.
The Pope's Mass Wednesday will be on the Mexico side of the border, but Catholic Extension has arranged for thousands to watch it simultaneously at the Sun Bowl on the El Paso side of the border.