The eyes of Texas are upon the pope

In a state where Catholics are the second largest denomination, Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.-Mexico border will carry weight.

Frank Alvarez, a parishioner at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, is planning to travel by road with his son and nearly a dozen people from Central Texas to see Pope Francis during his Wednesday visit to the Mexican border city of Juárez.

“It would be an unforgettable experience,” Alvarez said. “We had to ask for some days off at work, but it’s worth it.”

Texas may be mostly Protestant, but when Francis visits the U.S.-Mexico border, his words will resonate with Alvarez and millions of other Catholics across the state.

Catholicism is the second largest denomination in the state after Evangelical Protestants. Estimates vary, but according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study and the American Religious Identification Survey, between one-fifth and one-third of all Texans identify as Catholics.

Statistics from the Pew Research Center show a declining number of Catholics across the country — dropping from 54.3 million in 2007 to 50.9 million in 2014 — but they’re growing in Central Texas, according to the Diocese of Austin. It estimates there are 558,239 Catholics across 25 counties, including Travis, Hays, Williamson and Bastrop.

“We have seen tremendous growth, and we expect in the next 10 or 15 years to have 1 million Catholics in the diocese,” said Austin Diocese spokesman Christian R. Gonzalez.

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Hispanics and Catholicism

Whether it’s the charities helping victims of the Hidden Pines and the Bastrop County Complex fires, or anti-abortion groups participating at the Texas Rally for Life held at the south steps of the Capitol in January, Catholicism continues to exert a strong influence in the Austin area.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, can be seen anywhere from a greeting card near a restaurant’s cash register to a mosaic built with mirror glass along East Cesar Chavez Street. Most of the 226 parishes in the Austin Diocese host celebrations dedicated to her every year on Dec. 12. Wearing feather headdresses and skirts of multiple colors, parishioners often perform Aztec dances barefoot to drums and maracas in her honor.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe provides a bridge for Latino Catholics in the U.S. and in Texas,” said Chad Seales, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Texas.

Experts believe that despite sexual scandals and large competition from other religions, Catholicism in the U.S. persists in large part because of a devoted Hispanic community.

In Texas, about 72 percent of Catholics identify themselves as Latinos. Most of them describe themselves as recent immigrants or third-generation immigrants, and only 16 percent said it was their parents who came to the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.

St. John Paul II did not miss a chance to address the Hispanic community during his visit to San Antonio in 1987, the only time a pope has come to Texas.

“Hispanic Catholics are a group that leads the rest of the United States’ Catholicism, in part because you believe in family,” he said in Spanish to a crowd of thousands.

Fausta Cornejo kneels in prayer during Mass at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Austin on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. (Rodolfo Gonzalez / Austin American-Statesman)

Texas and the pope

Francis won’t be the first pope Alvarez gets to see. Nearly 30 years ago, he dropped everything and drove all night to get a glimpse ofJohn Paul in San Antonio.

Alvarez, who now works at the Texas comptroller office, was a graduate student at the time in North Texas. His parents, who had made plans to see the pope and left for San Antonio days ahead, asked Alvarez to stay behind and take care of his younger siblings.

However, he couldn’t pass up the chance to see the pontiff. After asking relatives to take care of his siblings, he drove to San Antonio and attended one of the three massive ceremonies with the pope.

“I’ve never seen that many people. Not even at a Cowboys football game,” said Alvarez, now 53.

The figure of the pope is an important one for all Catholics in Texas. Francis is particularly popular among Hispanics for being the first pope who was born in the Americas. As the child of immigrant parents, he is also well-liked for regularly standing for immigrants’ rights.

When Francis visited the U.S. last year, many Central Texans traveled to the East Coast to see him.

As soon as the announcement was made, Rae Ann Carrizales, who lives in Round Rock, booked a hotel in Washington D.C., where she saw Francis with her husband, mother-in-law and her three children. They arrived at 4 a.m. to see Francis at the Capitol lawn, where he appeared after his address to the U.S. Congress. Hours later, they took cover under a tree on Constitution Avenue to see him drivethrough the city.

“The fact that we could be in the presence of the pope during the visit was unimaginable,” Carrizales said. “It’s something that I can’t explain; you can’t describe the feeling.”

Pope Francis to stir Texas political debate over immigration, border

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at the Texas State Prayer Breakfast on the National Day of Prayer event at the Doubletree Hotel on May 4, 2015. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman)

By Sean Collins Walsh

The first European settlers of Texas were Franciscan priests building missions, including the Alamo, on behalf of Spain. This week, the first pope to share a namesake saint with the poverty-minded religious order will visit Juárez, just across the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso.

The presence of Pope Francis, who has advocated for a more compassionate approach to immigrants in the U.S. and across the globe, will stir the debate over immigration and border security as the Texas Legislature girds for fights over issues like banning so-called sanctuary cities and continuing the state’s $800 million effort to police the border.

The unabashedly political pope visits the border at a time when the ranks of Roman Catholic voters are swelling in a state long dominated by Protestants, thanks to an influx of Latino residents.

From 1990 to 2008, Catholics jumped from 23 percent to 32 percent of the Texas population, even as Catholics’ share of the U.S. population dropped slightly, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, the largest and most cited national poll on religion.

According to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of Texas Catholics lean Democratic, and 29 percent Republican. Sixty-four percent favor bigger government and more services, while 29 percent want less government.

Juárez’s mayor invited Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is Catholic, and other Texas officials to attend the pope’s visit. Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman said Abbott is unable to attend because he is scheduled to swear in the education commissioner that day. Land Commissioner George P. Bush, another high-profile Catholic Republican, did not respond to several requests for comment and has not said publicly that he is going to see Francis.

Texas won’t be completely unrepresented. Democratic state Sens. José Rodriguez, whose district includes El Paso, and Sylvia Garcia, a Houstonian who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, said they accepted invitations from the mayor.

Rodriguez, who grew up Catholic, said he stopped practicing years ago but has felt more connected to the church under Francis.

“I don’t mind saying I was separated from the church over different issues, but this pope gives me a lot to be proud of,” he said. “His message is a very strong one for supporting immigrants and migrants in general and removing barriers that separate us instead of bind us together.”

“To me, Catholics and Christians by definition are compassionate people, and I hope that that would be true and we see a more compassionate public policy."

Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, chair of the Hispanic Caucus

Garcia said she is Catholic and hopes Francis’ trip will help persuade the governor to pursue policies that are better for immigrants.

“To me, Catholics and Christians by definition are compassionate people, and I hope that that would be true and we see a more compassionate public policy,” Garcia said. “The leadership now is so intent on doing some things that are contrary to what we’re going to hear the pope talk about.”

Asked what she would say to the pope if she met him in Juárez, Garcia teared up and said, “Just to thank him for sharing his heart with all of us.”

Abbott, as most Republicans, aligns with the church in opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. But the division between his views on immigration and the church’s was highlighted last year when Texas sued the federal government over President Barack Obama’s executive actions that would, in part, give permanent legal status to about 4 million unauthorized immigrants.

Frank Alvarez kneels in prayer during a rosary recited before Mass at St.William Catholic Church in Round Rock on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. Alvarez and his family are planning a trip to Juárez to attend a Mass by Pope Francis. From left are Alvarez's daughter, Alexandra, 19; son, Frankie, 13; and wife, Chi-Wei. (Rodolfo Gonzalez / Austin American-Statesman)

At the time, Abbott said in the Houston Chronicle, “Like the pope, I’m Catholic, and I share the faith with the pope. As it concerns the lawsuit, the legal challenge, it’s important to understand the reason why people are attracted to America in the first place. And that is because our Constitution has made this country the premier country in the history of the world, and the president violated the Constitution when he issued his executive order.”

Abbott also was at loggerheads with the Catholic bishops of Texas when they announced in November that Catholic relief agencies would not comply with a state directive that they stop resettling Syrian refugees in Texas.

“The horrors of modern terrorism are frightening, but they demand from us a strong renewal of our faith and our commitment to Christian teachings and the common good,” the bishops wrote in a statement. “We firmly believe that it is possible to maintain security at home while also welcoming refugees.”

Despite being the state’s third nominally Catholic governor, Abbott is likely the first true believer to hold the office, said Jeffrey Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. Sam Houston only became Catholic to gain favor with the Mexican government before Texas gained independence, and Francis Lubbock converted for his wife before becoming an Episcopal for his second wife after leaving office, Patterson said.

Patterson’s group, which lobbies the state on behalf of Texas’ 13 bishops, supports a pathway to citizenship of unauthorized immigrants and opposes bans on sanctuary cities — jurisdictions that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement — among other pro-immigrant positions.

“It’s important to realize that the governor of the state of Texas is not the representative of the Catholic Church in state government,” Patterson said. “Certainly there are issues that we would hope that the governor would listen to his Catholic faith in pursuing policies, but he’s always been open; he’s always been willing to engage the bishops in a dialogue.”

Patterson said he’s hopeful that the pope’s trip to Juárez will change the dialogue about immigration.

Francis made his first trip to the U.S. in September and gave high-profile addresses to Congress and the United Nations. He urged leaders to combat poverty, climate change and wealth inequality and to show compassion for immigrants and those suffering from hunger and war.

Sean Theriault, a University of Texas political science professor who teaches a class on politics and the Catholic Church, said the pope’s visit to Juárez is unlikely to change the minds of Texas Republican leaders on immigration issues but will highlight the fissure Francis has exposed between Catholic teaching and the party.

“I can’t imagine that it’s going to have much of an influence on the Texas Republican Party, but once again this pope is creating lots of headaches for Republicans because of his views on (immigration) and income inequality,” Theriault said. “This pope has created much more tension by focusing on the social gospel, making it much more difficult for either party to claim the mantle of the Catholic Churchas the Republicans did on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.”