Every Sunday, my parents would sit by the radio in our humble home in the Salvadoran countryside to listen to the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I remember that when I was 12, they woke me up before dawn one day to travel three hours by bus to attend his mass.
Hearing his words changed my life. It wasn’t until I heard Romero that I knew I had found my spiritual home. At a time when El Salvador was wracked by civil war, Romero had won the love and admiration of Salvadorans by repeatedly calling against government-sanctioned violence and by standing with the poor.
Tragically, he was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass.
However, much of his spirit lives on in Pope Francis, who also embraces humility, compassion and equality. The challenge now for the church and parishes around the country — including Long Island — is to be able to fully embrace Pope Francis’ vision.
Whether through symbolic gestures like eschewing the papal apartments or through strongly speaking out against income inequality and “the idolatry of money,” Francis’ words and deeds have inspired me because they show the church can live up to its faith.
Living on Long Island, I see the tremendous needs in my community. In immigrant communities, where many Catholic parishioners like me live, Hispanic residents are discriminated against and abused. Immigrants here illegally lack many of the protections other Long Islanders enjoy.
My neighbors have routinely shared stories of having their wages stolen by unscrupulous employers, living in poor conditions because landlords refuse to make repairs or harass them, or being in fear that their relatives will be detained by authorities. I also have witnessed unaccompanied immigrant children and young parents suffer the trauma of detention near the border and the intimidation when they arrive in unwelcoming communities.
We need Pope Francis’ vision to reach us here in our communities, just as Archbishop Romero’s did in El Salvador.
For decades, the church — including Catholic Charities — has offered vital services to the community, providing legal assistance to immigrants and a range of other programs. And faith leaders like the Sisters of St. Joseph have stood with immigrants to call for reform so that families will remain together.
But in communities like mine, there are still so many unmet needs, and so many more ways in which our parishes can help us. They can help us organize and advocate for higher wages, affordable housing, and better ways to integrate immigrants.
With Francis’ leadership, there is a tremendous opportunity for the church — all the way down to the parishes — to work with the community to fight injustice.
Pope Francis has helped refocus the church and the attitude of much of its leadership. I hope his message will now reach every parish to make sure that the church lives up to the mission Archbishop Romero once taught us: to be a voice for the voiceless.
María Magdalena Hernández is a resident of Bay Shore and a member of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group.
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