Pope Francis Heads to Mexico as “Missionary of Mercy”

By Becky Sindelar

February 11, 2016 — Pope Francis will visit Mexico for the first time in his papacy from Feb. 12-17. The historic trip to the second most populous Catholic country in the world will culminate with a Feb. 17 outdoor Mass in Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s northern border, across from El Paso, Texas. Behind the altar, the fence that separates the two nations will be visible.

The pope said his reasons for going to Mexico are “simple”: “I want to come as a missionary of mercy and peace.” In a video message to the Mexican people, he also told them, “I want to meet with you to profess our faith together and share a fundamental truth in our lives: that God loves us very much, that he loves us with an infinite love, beyond our merits.”

A man on his bicycle passes in front of paintings of Pope Francis in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in Ecatepec during his visit to Mexico. (CNS photo/Edgard Garrido, Reuters)

Pope Francis’ trip is expected to draw 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. 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, believes Pope Francis will speak about the vulnerability of migrants in Mexico to abuse, violence and extortion.

“I think he’s going to urge everyone to respect their human dignity and to reject, what he’s called many times, this 'culture of indifference,' treating people as a commodity,” says Fr. Carroll. “I think he’ll call us to be our best selves, to respect human rights and do all we can to support and care for migrants, much like he did in his speech to the U.S. Congress last September.”

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) 

Before the Mass in Ciudad Juárez on Feb. 17, the pope is expected to walk to the edge of the Rio Grande, the river that separates the two nations, and pray for the more than 6,000 people who lost their lives trying to cross the border in the past 15 years.

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’ll be spending the week in his hometown and sharing his experiences on his blog, “A Jesuit from Ciudad Juárez,” in both English and Spanish

Fr. Ruiz believes it will be a time of renewal for the church in Ciudad Juárez. “I think he’ll bring a message of love and healing that the church there really needs. The city is very much in trauma after the violence, which has subsided somewhat in recent years. To victims, I think he’ll assure them that they are not alone, and that the whole church is with them.”

Fr. Ruiz, a native of Ciudad Juárez, will be blogging about the pope's visit to Mexico from his hometown.

During the visit, Fr. Ruiz will get to concelebrate 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?”

The pope won’t just be visiting the northern border in Mexico; he’ll be crisscrossing the country, covering over 2,000 miles, delivering 13 speeches and celebrating five Masses.

He travels first to Mexico City, where he’ll meet with diplomats, speak to Mexico’s bishops and celebrate Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Afterwards, the pope will have time to pray before the image of Mary, which appeared on the cloak of St. Juan Diego after Mary appeared to him in 1531 and is preserved at the basilica.

(CNS graphic/Frida Larios)

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 includes stops in Ecatepec, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Morelia and San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where he will celebrate Mass with the indigenous community from Chiapas. During his visit in Chiapas, the pope will present a decree authorizing the use of indigenous languages in Masses.

The original cloak of St. Juan Diego bearing the miraculous image of Mary is seen in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. (CNS photo/David Maung) 

In Ecatepec on Feb. 14, Pope Francis will hold the largest public event of his visit when he celebrates an outdoor Mass. 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.

Fr. Christopher hopes that Pope Francis will talk about violence, but not just in terms of it being Mexico’s problem. “In the U.S., we tend to see it as their problem, it’s Mexico’s violence, it’s their cartels. But what’s driving it is our drug use up here in the U.S. So we need to start thinking across borders. We need to be thinking more systemically, more globally about this. And I hope the pope challenges both sides of the border to see this as our problem.”

Pope Francis will spend his final day in Ciudad Juárez, where in addition to celebrating the outdoor Mass, he will visit a prison. Just across the border in El Paso, Jesuits at Sacred Heart Parish are also anticipating the trip.

“Pope Francis is making a point of visiting places that other popes did not,” says Jesuit Father Ron Gonzales, pastor of Sacred Heart, which 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.”

During his visit to the border, Fr. Carroll hopes Pope Francis will voice “the urgency of immigration reform that respects the human dignity of the migrants that are coming and also a call to address the factors that force people to migrate: economic need, family separation, violence.”

People walk in front of a billboard with an image of Pope Francis in a neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez. (CNS photo/David Maung)

Fr. Ruiz believes the pope’s visit will not only be 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.”

Fr. Christopher is struck by the symbolism of the pope coming to 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]

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