By Becky Sindelar
February 17, 2016 — Pope Francis arrived in Mexico City on Feb. 12 for a historic six-day visit to the country, culminating with a Feb. 17 outdoor Mass in Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s northern border, across from El Paso, Texas. Before the Mass, at the border of Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis blessed a large cross and prayed for migrants who have lost their lives making the perilous journey north.
During the Mass at the border, Pope Francis pleaded for the plight of immigrants. "We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis, which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable areas.
"The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want to measure instead with names, stories and families."
Pope Francis’ trip drew attention to difficult issues facing the country, including poverty, migration, violence, corruption and the narcotics trade, as well as renewing the focus on the immigration debate in the United States.
In advance of the pope's trip, Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a bi-national organization in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, which works to promote humane U.S.-Mexico border and immigration policies, said he hoped Pope Francis would speak about the vulnerability of migrants in Mexico to abuse, violence and extortion. The pope did not disappoint, calling for "No more death! No more exploitation!" during his homily at the border Mass.
Fr. Carroll (right) walked with Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City in the Arizona desert in 2014, when Fr. Carroll took a group of bishops on a hike north of Nogales where migrants often cross into the United States. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Jesuit Father Brian Christopher, who works at Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio, Texas, about eight hours from the border, says you can’t downplay the significance of the pope’s border visit. “It’s really striking that the pope is going to the border, especially right now as our political campaign cycle kicks into high gear, and there’s all the talk about building walls and keeping the others out.”
Jesuit Father Pepe Ruiz, who was ordained last June and is currently serving at St. Louis University High School, has a unique perspective on the pope’s trip, as he is a native of Ciudad Juárez. He spent the week in his hometown and shared his experiences on his blog, “A Jesuit from Ciudad Juárez,” in both English and Spanish.
During the visit, Fr. Ruiz concelebrated Mass with the pope. “Being that it is my first year as a priest, someone told me it’s like you’re a basketball rookie and you get to play with Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Who gets that opportunity?”
Fr. Ruiz, a native of Ciudad Juárez, blogged about the pope's visit to Mexico from his hometown.
In addition to visiting the northern border in Mexico; Pope Francis crisscrossed the country, covering over 2,000 miles, delivering 13 speeches and celebrating five Masses.
The pope arrived in Mexico City Feb. 12, where he met with diplomats, spoke to Mexico’s bishops and celebrated Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Afterwards, Pope Francis fulfilled his much-desired wish to pray in silence before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which appeared on the cloak of St. Juan Diego after Mary appeared to him in 1531 and is preserved at the basilica.
Pope Francis prays before the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe after celebrating Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City Feb. 13. (CNS photo)
Fr. Carroll says the pope’s visit to Our Lady of Guadalupe is “a real affirmation of the country of Mexico and its people and the strong faith that they have. At the same time, I think he’s coming to really encourage the church to respond to the most pressing issues that exist in Mexico, among them being violence and various forms of injustice, and that the church has a role to play in responding to these realities and to the people most affected by them.”
The pope’s itinerary also included stops in Ecatepec, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Morelia and San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where he celebrated Mass with the indigenous community from Chiapas on Feb. 15.
While in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Pope Francis communicated the Vatican's official approval of the use of the local languages in liturgical prayer. Two of the languages — Tzotzil and Tzeltal — were used for some of the readings and prayers during the pope's Mass. And, after the pope read his homily in Spanish, it was translated for the many in the crowd who speak only their Mayan tongue.
(CNS graphic/Frida Larios)
In Ecatepec, Pope Francis celebrated Mass Feb. 14 on a vast open field with some 300,000 people. Ecatepec is a poor suburb just outside Mexico City and a strategic point for drug cartels; it also has one of the country's highest murder rates of women.
After Mass, Pope Francis recited the Angelus with the thousands gathered on the dusty field. Before leading the prayer, he recognized "how much each one of you has suffered to reach this moment, how much you have 'walked' to make this day a day of feasting, a time of thanksgiving." He urged the people to step up and work together to "make this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities."
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Ecatepec Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis spent his final day in Ciudad Juárez, where in addition to celebrating the outdoor Mass, he visited a prison.
“Pope Francis is making a point of visiting places that other popes did not,” says Jesuit Father Ron Gonzales, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, just across the border. The parish provides sacraments and services to Catholics on both sides of the border. “He wants to be with the people on the margins. Ciudad Juárez is home to many people who are poor, homeless, suffering. It is a place of poverty and violence, and it serves as an entry point into the United States.”
Pope Francis accepts a crucifix from a prisoner as he visits a prison in Ciudad Juarez Feb. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Fr. Ruiz says the pope’s visit was not only about the message in his speeches and homilies, but about the message of his presence. “It’s just like the comforting presence of a friend standing next to someone who just lost a loved one. This is tremendously powerful and healing.”
Pope Francis embraces children during a visit to the Federico Gomez Children's Hospital of Mexico in Mexico City Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Fr. Christopher is struck by the symbolism of the pope visiting the border but not coming into the United States. “The pope standing on the other side of the line is really important. In the Bible, whenever someone would draw a line between us and them — us, the good guys, and them, the sinners — Jesus always stepped onto the other side of the line. He always seemed to be with the others. I can’t help but to read that into what the pope is doing on the border.” [Sources: CNS, Crux, Catholic Register, AP, America Magazine, Los Angeles Times, CNS, CNS]
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