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CNN: Texas pilgrims eager to welcome Pope Francis as he visits U.S.

Texas pilgrims eager to welcome Pope Francis as he visits U.S.

Updated: 21 September 2015 11:42 PM

WASHINGTON — Texas Catholics are flocking to the East Coast to welcome Pope Francis. Few will be as thrilled as Ronda Kay Moreland.

The 40-year-old church activist from Lake Highlands will watch the pontiff address Congress as a guest of Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas — an invitation that, when it arrived last month, made her “the happiest woman in the world.”

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Moreland, a radio producer, choking up as she talked about representing her church, St. Thomas Aquinas, with a rare ticket inside the House chamber.

At the Capitol, controversies of the day may be on the agenda given the raging fights inside — and the pope’s own strong views — on climate change, immigration, the refugee crisis, and the Iran nuclear deal.

One local congressman, Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, is bringing a “Dreamer” to the speech to capitalize on the pope’s call for improved treatment of immigrants. Lissette Moreno, whose parents brought her to Texas illegally as a child, earned degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas Woman’s University under the state law that lets those in the country illegally pay in-state tuition rates.

“Her life’s work embodies the pope’s spirit of mercy and fraternity to the immigrant community,” Veasey said.

‘How could we not go?’

The pontiff arrives in Washington from Cuba on Tuesday afternoon for a three-day visit that includes a meeting with the president, a Spanish-language Mass and the address to Congress, a papal first.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from across the country will crowd Washington during the visit. Others will flock to New York and Philadelphia, where the pope will also celebrate Mass.

“How could we not go see him?” Javier Gutiérrez said.

He, along with his wife, Ximena Gutiérrez, and their seven children — ages 5 to 24 — will be among the 170 or so congregants taking the 23-hour ride. Their Oak Cliff church, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, raised $41,000 for the bus procession.

A number of Dallas-area churches formed travel groups, according to diocese officials, including St. Ann in Coppell, St. Joseph in Waxahachie and St. Gabriel in McKinney. Forty parishioners from the Santa Monica church were traveling by plane.

“Most people are from Mexico. There are some others from El Salvador and some Dallas-born,” said María M. Gonzáles-Rocha, the church’s Hispanic ministry director.

Five students from the University of Dallas, a Catholic college in Irving, will skip a day of classes hoping for a glimpse of the pope, flying into Washington on Tuesday night and leaving early Thursday, along with a professor and admissions counselor Courtney Grogan.

It’s much easier than going all the way to the Vatican, Grogan noted.

“There are not a lot of opportunities to see him, so we really felt the need to go,” said Grogan, 24. “Even if we are there just for the Mass.”

That would be Wednesday’s Mass in Spanish, during which the pope will canonize Junipero Serra, a controversial 18th-century Spanish missionary. Serra founded nine missions in California and will be the first saint canonized on U.S. soil. Some Catholics and others oppose his sainthood, pointing to forceful methods colonizers used to convert Native Americans.

“Texas and California have a similar history with Spanish missions,” said Grogan. “Not only do I love Pope Francis personally for his humility, joy and everything he stands for, I get to be a part of this important moment in history.”

Call for empathy?

That Francis, a native of Argentina, will celebrate the Mass in Spanish is a welcome gesture for many American Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic.

It’s also a nod to Francis’ calls for mercy for immigrants and refugees worldwide, expected to be a major focus of a visit laden with political tripwires.

“He understands the situation immigrants are going through,” said Bishop Kevin Farrell of the Dallas Diocese.

Just over half of the 1.2 million Catholics in the diocese are Latino.

Farrell said he expects the pope to encourage empathy as a refugee crisis seizes Europe and the Middle East, and vitriolic rhetoric about illegal immigration embroils the 2016 presidential election.

“Many of these immigrants leave their homelands and their little villages seeking survival,” said Farrell, who will meet with the pope and other U.S. bishops. “They are not criminals, and that characterization needs to be answered.”

Any address to Congress is fraught with political implications, though Vatican aides and other church officials caution against reading the politics of the day into whatever message the pope delivers.

“He’s going to address those matters from a moral perspective, but I don't think he will get into one political argument or another,” Farrell said.

Spiritual, not political

Conservatives in the U.S. have found previous popes to be reliable allies against same-sex marriage and abortion. Francis has rankled some on the American right with his warnings on climate change, his support for the Iran nuclear deal and improved U.S.-Cuba relations, and his emphasis on economic equality.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., will skip the speech in protest. A fellow Catholic from Texas, Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, said he hopes the pope brings “a spiritual message rather than a political one.”

“Some are hoping for the Vatican’s views on global warming or Iran, or views I more closely agree with on protecting the lives of the unborn,” Brady said. “But the power of the pope resonates most when he brings that spiritual message of love and prayer to Congress.”

Fellow Catholic Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, encouraged colleagues to avoid using politics as a filter.

“We have our political ideological positions, and the pope’s teachings don’t fit in the boxes we usually see in Congress,” he said. “We should be open to his messages.”

Al Dia staff writer Karina Ramirez in Dallas contributed to this report.

GO & DO: Watch the pope in the park

The Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is organizing an event at Klyde Warren Park downtown that will include a simulcast of Pope Francis’ Mass from Philadelphia.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free

Where: Klyde Warren Park, 2012 Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Dallas


2 p.m: Praise and concert

3 p.m: Live broadcast of the pope’s Mass from Philadelphia during the World Family Meeting

5 p.m: Special blessing by Bishop Kevin Farrell

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