As lawmakers get ready to head back to Capitol Hill, Tampa Bay Catholics are joining believers across the country to push for immigration reform.
"It's really a three-prong approach, through prayer, education and advocacy," said Sabrina Burton Schultz, director of the Diocese of St. Petersburg's life ministry office.
The diocese of 321,459 Catholics, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, is encouraging parishioners to contact politicians about the issue. The diocese also is organizing a candlelight prayer vigil, Hispanic Mass and a pilgrimage of the images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lujan.
Schultz said the diocese will be "sharing with parishes a bulletin insert, homily points, talking points, prayers of the faithful," on behalf of the cause.
"Because there are many, many misconceptions about immigration and immigration reform, we are trying to dispel misconceptions," she said.
Bishop Robert Lynch wrote in a recent blog to his flock that "too many people, Catholics most all of them, live in constant fear of deportation.
"I know they are here illegally in many instances, and I have heard and reflected on all the arguments that those who break the law should NOT be given a break by the law. But they are here. And they are working, albeit for a pittance. And they are not homeless and in our streets. And they are very strongly peaceful and law-abiding people."
Nationally, bishops and priests from some major dioceses will use Sunday Masses on Sept. 8 to urge Congress to pass immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
But the local diocese isn't targeting that date.
"We are going to ask the parishes to pick a weekend that is conducive to their calendar and to use the talking points and the bulletin insert and the special prayers then," Schultz said.
Vivi Iglesias, associate director of Hispanic ministries in the diocese, is working on the local effort. An immigrant herself, Iglesias is passionate about the proposed legislation. Comprehensive immigration reform holds the promise of family reunification, U.S. citizenship and just plain human dignity for the undocumented, she said.
"Family reunification is important. Without a path for citizenship, these individuals will not be able to be part of this beautiful country," Iglesias said. "We understand that there is a process, and yes, those waiting should be first on line, and we are praying and hoping that the same opportunity will be given to those people."
The St. Petersburg diocese, which is working with Justice for Immigrants, an office of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., also is meeting with local politicians.
"We met with Congressman Gus Bilirakis this week," Schultz said last week, adding that a second meeting is being arranged with U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.
Ross, a Lakeland Republican, and Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor, do not support comprehensive immigration reform.
Lynch, who referred to the men, women and children from Mexico as his "spiritual brothers and sisters," noted that they "are rapidly becoming the core faith group in the Catholic Church in the United States."
As part of its campaign, the diocese will hold a Hispanic Mass at 11 a.m. Oct. 12 at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. A candlelight prayer vigil is being planned for 7 p.m. Oct. 14, with people gathering at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa. Additionally, the pilgrimage of the images of Our Lady of Lujan and Our Lady of Guadalupe will be made to about 20 parishes.
"It is a historical moment, and we need to make sure that this time, it is done with the human dignity of the people in mind," Iglesias said.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.