JUAREZ — Surreal, amazing, powerful – these are words to describe the experience of Pope Francis’ visit to Juárez – but these are only words.
They do not truly define or describe the experience – it is one that can only be felt. And it is a feeling that can be described as a tug at the heart, a feeling of peace. But again, those are only words that describe a feeling.
For weeks leading up to Pope’s visit there was a frenzy of planning by the city and the Juárez Diocese that accompanied it. An altar was
built, more than 80,000 volunteers were sought to assist in the human chain set to greet him along the route, and thousands more were needed to assist in the preparations and the organization of the event that would host 250,000 people.
Across the border in El Paso, the Catholic Diocese in conjunction with the University of Texas at El Paso and the city did their part to prepare for his coming.
Streets were closed, El Paso Police Officers were scheduled to assist in security and traffic for Wednesday; complaints were lodged to local city leaders, and a nonprofit organization – American United for Separation of Church and State – monitored the city’s spending.
Costs for preparations on the U.S. side were projected to cost about $1 million, said Tammy Fonce-Olivas, a spokesperson for the city, in an earlier interview with the El Paso Herald Post.
“But that is the initial cost and may change,” Fonce-Olivas said.
At the ports of entry, thousands crossed on foot or drove into Juárez. Customs and Border Patrol officials did their part to also prepare by adding additional staff to the crossings.
But despite the worry, frustration and additional stress that came with Wednesday’s papal visit – there was a feeling of peace and calm; a feeling of joy and happiness; a feeling of excitement that overcame the large crowds at the El Punto, both inside and outside the fenced area as the pontiff approached.
Before entering El Punto, the pontiff exited toward the back, and entering the border where Customs and Border Patrol agents stood by.
Across the border in El Paso at the levee more than 500 people, including migrants, looked on, waved and cheered.
News crews covered the event from the roof of Hart Elementary School to document this historical event.
The Pope then walked onto the landmark at the border – a large cross, and several smaller ones around it – that symbolized the death and
suffering of migrants that had crossed from Juárez to the United States to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
Cheers could be heard from both sides of the border and the Pope bowed his head in prayer once he approached the cross – then a moment of silence fell – a moment of peace for both cities.
After a moment, the pontiff looked up to his right and blessed the migrants watching from across the levee before walking down the ramp and taking his place at the altar.
A Time for Mass and Reflection
During a traditional Catholic Mass a lecturer, or reader of the Bible scriptures, will proceed in carrying the Book of Gospels and place it on the altar.
Following the lecturer one altar server carries the cross or crucifix, and several other altar servers follow. Then, the priest walks in; and pauses at the foot of the altar, bows his head; and the proceeds behind the altar and humbles himself by bowing and kissing it.
But this was no ordinary Mass.
At the start the choir, which according to the Diocese of Juárez, comprised of 45 persons from the Escuela Dioscesana de canto Liturgo, 40 singers from the Coro Diocesano Canta Y Camina, and about 80 singers selected by the diocese of Juárez, sang the entrance song.
Following their cue, priests from various parishes and dioceses – from Juárez and across the border of Texas and New Mexico – began the procession with the bishops following and dawning purple regalia. The purple regalia symbolizes the time of Lent on the Catholic calendar – a time of reflection and sacrifice that spans 40-days. Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, marked the beginning of the spiritual season.
The Pope then entered carrying the cross and walking up the altar, with several members of the clergy behind him.
Crowds pressed upon the gates from their sections in the hopes to greet him; others reached their arms out as high as they could, with their cell phones or cameras in hand, in the hopes of catching a quick photo of the pontiff as he passed by.
And as with tradition, Pope Francis walked up to the altar, bowed his head and kissed it. He then blessed the crucifix, the altar, and the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin Mary) with incense.
As he approached the altar, a hush fell over the crowd.
“En el nombre del Padre, el Hijo, y el Espirtu Santo,” Francis said opening the mass with the traditional greeting. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Amen,” boomed crowd gathered in the El Punto and along the levee; and at the Sun Bowl more than 30,000 echoed the response.
The Mass continued traditionally – albeit with the Pope seated and the massive crowds on both borders watching and waiting to respond accordingly.
It was surreal, hundreds of thousands responding accordingly, in two different nations – but all as one – together.
As the Mass proceeded the first reading, traditionally from the Old Testament, was from the book of Jonah, Chapter 3 versus 1 through 10.
In the reading God comes to Jonah a second time and asks him to take a message to the city of Nineveh and announce that in 40 days God would destroy the city if they did not repent and change their ways.
According the Book of Jonah, the King of the city ordered that his people repent, and God did not destroy the city, “Every man shall turn from his evil way.”
The reading was later followed by the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 11, versus 29 through 32.
In the Gospel, Jesus turns to a crowd that has gathered around him and says in part:
This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
It is fitting that Pope Francis came during the first week of Lent and even moreso that on Feb. 17, the reading and the Gospel coincided with Juárez’s dangerous past.
According to the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia, in 2010, deaths caused by violence left more than 3,080 killed. Since then, the violence has decreased by an estimated 92 percent, with 2015 ending in 303 killed according to the data.
A Call to Change
During his homily, an interpretation of both readings given at the mass for the congregation to understand and hopefully apply, the Pope’s message was in a word – powerful.
The pontiff spoke out against the violence that caused so many to cross into the United States – sometimes illegally – placing their lives in peril. He asked for people to look into their hearts and act in Mercy.
“The glory of the Father is the glory of his children,” Francis said in Spanish. “There is no greater happiness for a father, who sees the dreams of his children come true. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing his children succeed, grow up and develop.”
The Pope then referenced the city of Nineveh, which was a large city that was destroying itself.
“It was fruitful of oppression, degradation, violence and injustice, ” he said. “The grand capital had it’s days numbered. It was no longer sustainable – because of the violence it generated.”
God then changed Jonah’s heart -the pontiff continued – there he appeared to Jonah, inviting the citizens (of Nineveh) and sending them a messenger to change their ways of destruction that was causing oppression and suffering.
“Go and announce to them that if they are accustomed to this way of life degradation then they have lost the sensation to feel pain….That’s why God sent Jonah – he sent him to wake up a city.”
The pope then called for people to open their eyes and their hearts and be merciful and to act in mercy – as God did to the citizen of Nineveh.
“Mercy gets close in every occasion to transform from within,” he said. “That is precisely the divine mystery of Mercy. Mercy invites forgiveness, it invites the conversation, it invites you to see the harm that all the Ninevites are causing. Mercy always enters during evil times to transform it.”
The pope went on and invoked a message: There is always time to change; there is always a chance to change a city full of destruction.
“This is the Word of God I want to share with you,” he said. “This is the Word that invites us to convert. In this year of Mercy and at this place, I want to implore you to listen to the divine mystery of Mercy. (…) Here in Ciudad Juárez and other bordering zones there are thousands of immigrants from Central America and other countries, and not forgetting Mexico that want to cross into the other side.”
The passage is filled with terrible injustices, the pope added including extortions, exploitation and human trafficking.
“We can’t neglect this humanitarian crises that has caused millions of people to cross over border on foot – crossing over hundreds of meters through the mountains, deserts, and dangerous paths,” the Pope said references the drug wars and the injustices in Mexico. “This humanitarian tragedy that is represented through the forced immigration today is a global phenomenon.”
The injustices and forced immigrations, the Pope continued, are done to seek refuge from the drug cartels and organized crime. Families have been divided, young children are called to act out in the violence and women’s lives are destroyed as a result of the violence and injustice he said.
The Pope then asked for all to be open in their hearts to conversion – like the Ninevites.
“No more death or destruction,” he said. “There is always a chance to change. There is always a way out. There is always an opportunity. There is always time to implore and act upon the Mercy of God.”
At the end of the mass Pope Francis called for justice and prayed that Juárez would one day be a place where it’s citizens could accomplish their dreams and have a future.
“The night is long and at times can be very dark. But I’ve seen that in this city there are many instances of lights and images of hope,” He said. “I see that God is here in this city, guiding you and sustaining your hope. There are many women and men, through their effort, that make sure that this city doesn’t stay dark. Many parents would raise their children to me as I passed them – they are the future of Mexico. We need to take care of them. Those children are the prophet of tomorrow, they are a sign of a new tomorrow – and I promise you that in a moment – I felt like crying – in a city that has suffered so much I saw hope.”
In parting he asked that Mexico not forget about the Virgen de Guadalupe, (Virgin Mary) “Without her Mexico doesn’t make sense.”
By Alexandra Hinojosa, El Paso Herald Post Contributor