BALTIMORE (AP) – Pope Francis praised Latino contributions to the country in a message to U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday, a week after Donald Trump was elected president and on the day the prelates put a Mexican-born archbishop in line to be their leader.
Francis noted that the U.S. church has welcomed immigrants throughout its history and said the "rich variety of their languages and cultural traditions" had enriched the church and the country. He urged the U.S. church to "go out from its comfort zone" and heal a society facing "increasing polarization."
"Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experience; to break down walls and to build bridges," he said.
During the campaign, Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has vowed to deport people in the country illegally who have criminal records unrelated to their immigration status.
The pope sent the message to the annual Baltimore meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Earlier Tuesday, the bishops elected Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, as the conference's first Latino vice president. The vice president customarily becomes president after a three-year term, putting Gomez in line to be the first Latino head of the conference. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas, who also has a large number of immigrant parishioners, was elected president for the next three years.
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At the very start of the meeting Monday, the bishops issued a plea to adopt humane policies toward immigrants and refugees, and vowed to stand with them and serve them no matter what is ahead. Earlier this year, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, refused a request by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to stop settling Syrian refugees in the state. Pence is now vice-president elect. The pope will make Tobin a cardinal in a ceremony Sunday in Rome.
"On the level of immigration, from our point of view, we certainly respect the government," DiNardo said at a news conference after he was elected. "But we also have the shepherd's heart. If there's somebody hungry, we're going to feed them. If there's somebody thirsty, we're going to give them something to drink. If there's somebody who is a stranger, we want to make them welcome."
Latinos comprise about four in 10 U.S. Catholics and are already a majority in several dioceses, including Los Angeles, where they make up about 70 percent of parishioners. They are on track to become a majority in the entire U.S. church within years.
The new conference leaders do not set policy. But they will represent the bishops' conference to Trump, among other duties. While bishops could find common ground with Trump, who has pledged to appoint anti-abortion federal judges, church leaders are deeply unsettled by his promised crackdown on immigrants and refugees.
Catholics are by far the largest faith tradition in the U.S., with more than 68 million members, according to the CARA research center at Georgetown University. The U.S. church has a nationwide network of legal and social service programs for immigrants and refugees. "Our mission is to help people to be united in our country and have hope," Gomez said.
At the Baltimore meeting, a video was shown of Francis reading his statement in English. It was timed to promote an effort called Encuentro, a national period of reflection and focus on Latino Catholics that will begin in dioceses in January and continue for years. The pope made no mention of the U.S. presidential elections in his message.
"Mindful of the contributions that the Hispanic community makes to the life of the nation, I pray that the Encuentro will bear fruit for the renewal of the American society and for the church's apostolate in the United States," Francis said.