Maryknoll Sister joins the thousands on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to worship together with Pope Francis
[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Lelia Mattingly, M.M.[/googlefont]
When Pope Francis arrived in Juárez, Mexico, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, to celebrate Mass and honor the thousands of lives lost crossing the border, the people were waiting. It was the last day of his six-day trip to Mexico, and on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 200,000 of us had journeyed from near and far to join in prayer.
Across from Juárez, in El Paso, Texas, 30,000 of us gathered in Sun Bowl Stadium for the simulcast of the Mass. Among us were 100 unaccompanied minors the pope had invited, currently being detained by U.S. immigration in one of three children’s shelters in El Paso. In this same city, I serve as a volunteer in Nazareth Hall, a shelter for immigrant families.
Hundreds of undocumented immigrants and refugees had gathered along the border fence to get as close as they could to hear El Papa. Every day I see people like them arrive at our shelter with only the clothes on their backs. Seeking asylum, they have been picked up by the Border Patrol or turned themselves in. Today, however, immigration officials did not detain for lack of legal documentation any of those who had gathered at the fence.
A huge screen showed the pope traveling through Juárez, thousands lining the streets. By the screens were huge signs: “Two Nations, One Faith” and “We are with you, Juárez!”
Ciudad Juárez, infamous for its femicide and such extreme violence that it was once labeled the murder capital of the world, this day shed tears of joy and hope. Its people, long oppressed and forgotten, finally had cause to celebrate. Amid the throngs were weary laborers, fathers with little more than hope, women who live lives targeted and afraid, but not today. Today it was safe for families to bring their kids, for single women to venture outdoors.
When the popemobile arrived, the excitement grew electric. We chanted from the bleachers, “¡Se ve, se siente, el Papa esta presente!” (One sees, one feels, the presence of Pope Francis!). There was a hush when the pope walked up a ramp along the border and prayed for all who died trying to cross. He blessed the many migrants on the El Paso side, then all those on the Mexican side, the majority of whom will never be allowed to cross the border.
The pope has called such international borders “monuments of exclusion” and “a form of suicide,” as global violence and chaos create more refugees who die daily in search of a safe place to lay their heads. By 4 p.m. when Pope Francis began the Mass, we felt unified. From both sides of the border, I felt such closeness to “Papa Francisco” as we celebrated our oneness in Christ.
I was struck by Pope Francis’ homily in Juárez, a place where global exploitation in sweatshops and trade practices dehumanizes workers every day. Reflecting on the day’s first reading from the Book of Jonah, the pope recalled the self-destructing oppression and violence of the people in ancient Nineveh and reiterated to us God’s call to the prophet Jonah: “Go and tell them that they have become used to this degrading way of life and have lost their sensitivity to pain. Go and tell them that injustice has infected their way of seeing the world.”
Pope Francis asked us to weep over injustice, corruption and oppression, as did the Ninevites. “These are tears that lead to transformation,” he said, “that soften the heart; they are the tears that purify our gaze and enable us to see the cycle of sin into which very often we have sunk… In this Year of Mercy, with you here, I beg for God’s mercy; with you I wish to plead for the gift of tears, the gift of conversion.”
Everywhere, stitched into the backdrop of this Mass, the human condition of the voiceless was made present. The altar where Pope Francis celebrated Mass was chiseled from three tons of granite by craftsmen, including Pedro Campos, deported to Mexico after five years in U.S. detention, forced to leave his family behind in Phoenix, Ariz.
The wooden crucifix that Pope Francis held during the Mass was carved by inmates of state Social Rehabilitation Center (CERESO) #3 in Juárez, where he met 700 men and women prisoners. That cross spoke to us of how beauty can be born in the darkest of places when there is mercy and love.
Throughout Mexico the pope pleaded with leaders to avoid corruption, exploitation and the “discarding” of persons so precious to God. He spoke to political leaders of human dignity, reminding them that everyone is “legal” in the eyes of God.
I was especially moved by his decision to visit the border, highlighting the plight of people who either flee or live with constant poverty and fear. In my home state of Kentucky, I began working with migrants in 1997 after NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, devastated local agriculture in Mexico and spelled hunger for countless people, forced to migrate.
After serving in Bolivia and Nicaragua, accompanying people during very violent years, last year, at the age of 74, I felt called to come serve at the border and accompany children and mothers escaping a new wave of violence. I was called again to enter the wounds of Christ and experience the desperation people feel when facing threats on their lives, on their children and families, as is ongoing in Central America.
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents bring these weary people to Nazareth Hall, where we receive them with a ¡Bienvenidos! (Welcome!). We tell them they are safe for now, but can make no promises of whether U.S. policies will allow them to stay, even if they are reunited with family in the United States.
I am blessed to be able to witness their pain, desperation and glimmers of hope, hope personified by our humble pope.
For me, one Sister amid an ocean of pain, it was the pope’s own tears that meant the most. As Pope Francis said leaving Mexico, “At times I felt like weeping to see so much hope in a people who are suffering so much.”
Featured Article: Before Mass in Juárez, Pope Francis prays at U.S.-Mexico border. (CNS/N. Wiechec/Mexico). Gabriela Romeri contributed to this article.