SAN ANTONIO, SEPT. 13 -- Beatrice Cortez and her husband, four children, one son-in-law and three aunts boarded a metro bus before dawn today bound for a dusty black field west of the city. The children just wanted a glimpse of Pope John Paul II, but the grown-ups were more ambitious.
Cortez hoped to hear the pope recognize and applaud the efforts of Hispanic Catholics here to improve their communities and the lives of fellow immigrants -- efforts to which she has devoted much of her life. Neither children nor adults were disappointed.
The family came within a few feet of the famous "popemobile" that carried John Paul II through the Mass site at Westover Hills to the enormous altar, and they listened as he preached a Gospel that has long been part of their lives.
"Those of you of Hispanic descent -- so numerous, so long in this land, so well-equipped to respond -- are called to hear the word of Christ and take it to heart," John Paul said to an adoring crowd of 250,000, overwhelmingly Hispanic. Jesus asked people to love each other, he went on, "and he specified this love embraces the entire range of human needs from the least to the greatest."
This is one of the pope's central themes on his second pastoral visit to the United States: that prosperous Americans must reach out to the less fortunate and that the less fortunate must help each other. He could not have found a more receptive audience than the Cortezes and the other Mexican Americans who gathered at the Mass or later at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church downtown.
For the last 13 years, Hispanics here have demonstrated how ordinary people can help themselves when they use the powerful resources of a willing church. In that time, an organization called Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), working through the city's 36 Catholic parishes, has pushed through programs for the city's poor, registered thousands of new voters and, in 1984, lobbied successfully for statewide educational financing reform.
COPS' campaign has been so successful that similar groups have sprung up in about 10 south Texas cities and towns and in cities elsewhere, including two in the Baltimore-Washington area. "When John Paul speaks of social action, of applying the Gospel to everyday life, he's speaking of organizations like COPS," says John Carr, director of social concerns for the Washington Archdiocese.
Many church officials, strongly committed to the idea that faith and work are inseparable, say they believe that the growing U.S. Hispanic population -- estimated at almost 19 million, of whom 90 percent are Catholic -- could be the salvation of a church in turmoil over social and moral issues.
Hispanics, they contend, are less likely to challenge the church's conservative teachings on such topics as the ordination of women and more likely to work on issues that affect their families' everyday well-being.
"We should work on those things we can do something about," agrees Beatrice Cortez, a COPS volunteer since its founding. With the church's support, she says, she evolved from a frustrated homemaker in the 1970s into a respected community organizer who travels extensively around the country.
The turning point came when she watched her daughter's elementary school being torn down, for reasons that made no sense to her, and visited a local priest involved in a national community organizing group, the Industrial Areas Foundation.
"He asked me, 'Are you angry? Then we'll teach you how to fight.' " Cortez recalled. "The church was giving me permission to fight."
She quit her $15,000-a-year job as a federal government clerk and went to work without pay for COPS. Soon, she was asked to head a national Catholic charitable group, and now she works for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, teaching community organizing skills to rural parishes.
Her work is different from similar, secular efforts, she said, "because we are putting our Christian values to work, giving people the 'why' of what they're doing."
Church officials put much hope in people like Cortez. The American-born daughter of devout Mexican migrant farmworkers, she is openly enthusiastic about the church and has passed that spirit to her children.
"Isn't this wonderful, isn't this wonderful?" she repeated as she got her first look at the tens of thousands of people already at the Mass site by 7 a.m.
"All right!" her oldest son, Andres, yelled as Archbishop Patrick Flores told the pope that despite winds that toppled parts of the altar last week, the "church of Texas is still standing and strong."
Andres, who was the student council president in high school, is following in his mother's footsteps as a COPS volunteer. Yet her children's devotion isn't slavish, Cortez said, and she is glad. She said her children frequently ask her why the church doesn't speak out more on social injustice.
"Good questions, those," she said.
In their call for a more vocal, activist church, Cortez and other Hispanics are echoing John Paul II's message. And they came to see him this morning hoping to hear that he knows they are working on it.
"The pope is seeing how Mexican this church is," said Ernesto Cortes Jr., Texas supervisor for the Industrial Areas Foundation, "how much more it is going to be and what that means to the kind of role the church will play."
Or, as Beatrice Cortez put it, "We saw him, but he also saw us."