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Pope Francis' visit a golden opportunity for Latino outreach

Pope Francis, arguably one of the most immigrant-friendly leaders in the world, is set to capture the entire American public's attention this week.

Pope Francis, arguably one of the most immigrant-friendly leaders in the world, is set to capture the entire American public's attention this week, helping the Catholic Church cling onto one of its fastest growing groups, but hardest to retain: Latinos.

Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. marks a set of historic firsts and a golden opportunity to appeal to the record 55 million Hispanics that currently live in this country. 

He's the first Latin American to lead the church and it's his first visit to the U.S. When he appears before thousands of Latinos in his first Mass on Wednesday, he will be speaking in the same native tongue. In New York he will meet with an immigrant youth soccer league and stand at an alter built by migrant day laborers. From there Francis will address immigration and religious liberty in Philadelphia on the steps of Independence Hall.

It's a jam-packed schedule reaching a population often left unnoticed in the shadows. His defense of human dignity extends to all walks of life, calling for migrants and refugees in the U.S. and around the world to be “welcomed and protected," not demonized. 

But the pope’s visit also provides a prominent platform for religious groups that have attempted to lead on immigration as a moral authority to drive domestic policy. It’s a sharp contrast to the tenor and tone on immigration issues currently dominating the political debate. 

“His purpose here is not to wade into our domestic politics but to strike a different tone, to change hearts,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s the answer to the negativity and the angry rhetoric that we’re seeing both on Capitol Hill and in the campaigns.”

Church leaders credit Francis for "walking the walk" in being willing to follow through on his calls for immigrant rights. For a time there was a chance the pope would take that on in a literal sense, when he said that traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border would be a “beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support.”

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While that trip ultimately did not happen, Fr. Sean Carroll, executive director of the KINO Border Initiative with the Jesuit Conference, said Pope Francis' message was emblematic of the support he has shown in urging humanitarian aid to all migrants and refugees in need. 

“We still hope he will make the border visit someday,” Carroll said. “Just the fact of him crossing the border would really highlight the trauma that the migrants experience.”

In some senses the target audience for Francis' trip is quite natural -- Latinos in many ways are the future of American Catholicism. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos represent 34% of all adults aligned with the church in the U.S. The share of Hispanics practicing the faith has grown steadily over the last several years, even as the proportion of white Catholics has waned.

But there’s a unique dynamic that is currently playing out in Latino communities. While the face of the Catholic church is becoming increasingly more diverse -- reflecting in part the high birth rates and growing Hispanic population in the U.S. -- the Hispanic community is becoming less and less Catholic. It has been a slow and steady decline of religious affiliation over the last several years. In fact, Pew found in 2014 that nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults, or 24%, identified themselves as “former” Catholics.

Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said there’s a fairly even split behind the decline. Those Latinos immigrants who aren’t leaving religion entirely are instead shifting their affiliations as they plant firm roots in the U.S.

“People are coming from countries where there is really only one faith – everyone is Catholic. But here, there are more options, there’s greater variety,” Gray said. “It’s often not the first generation to make that choice. Often it’s those children who marry non-Catholic and end up in an evangelical church.”

Some hope that Pope Francis’ unique appeal and more inclusive stance on social issues will reinvigorate Catholics and keep the church growing. In addition to his remarks on immigration, Francis has weighed into addressing controversial issues from marriage, poverty, climate change and global capitalism, shifting the church’s tone in ways that leave more openings to reach Americans.

RELATED: A diary of Pope Francis's visit to the US

Andrea Cristina Mercado, co-chair of the immigrant rights group We Belong Together, said she feels more connected to her faith. She is now anxious to introduce her young daughter to religion and become more involved with the church.

“I was raised Catholic, but stopped practicing for many years,” Mercado said. “Pope Francis really inspired me --  he’s brought me back to the church.”

Mercado was one of 100 women who walked a 100-mile pilgrimage -- starting from an immigration detention center in Pennsylvania and ending in Washington, D.C. -- to pay tribute to Francis’ historic visit to the U.S. this week. Advocates and organizers joined the procession from across the country, calling on supporters to echo the pope’s message promoting dignity for immigrants.

Ana Cañenguez, an undocumented mother living in Utah, brought with her the shoes that she wore while crossing the desert at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was her third time making the journey -- each time was to unite more of her family from El Salvador. But now Cañenguez and her children have final orders of deportation on their names. She hopes the papal visit will give rise to other stories like hers.

“I put these shoes on because when we were in the desert, I ran with faith and hope. And I’m doing this same pilgrimage of faith and hope,” Cañenguez said.