American bishops practice mercy in the 'la ciudad'

Twice in the past three months, I have had the great good fortune and opportunity to speak with Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, about Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico — once before the trip and once after.

As you can see in the interview (Page 4), Bishop Seitz had some eloquent words about the visit, especially on topics like immigration, mercy and what it means to live the Christian life. They are worth reading both carefully and thoughtfully.

But there’s one story that he related that didn’t make the official interview but is worth sharing. It takes place Feb. 16, the day before the papal Mass in Juárez. Bishop Seitz was on a tour of the city with a group of about eight American bishops, during which they visited the mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the mother church of the region founded in 1659 and located adjacent to the current cathedral.

The group walked into the church for a tour, and Bishop Seitz noticed rows of people sitting in the front of the church.

“At first I thought, ‘Is Mass going on? What’s happening here?’” he said. But “as we drew closer, we could see that they were there for confession, and there was one lone priest sitting up in the sanctuary.”

The group carried on with the tour, not wanting to interrupt the guide. But as they approached the sanctuary, Bishop Seitz met a religious sister who was working at the church. The sister informed him, upon inquiry about the long confession line, that there were supposed to have been three priests, but one hadn’t shown up and another had left.

“I remembered back to the days when I was in the parish and occasions when, like before Easter and so on, I came into the church and saw the lines snaking around the church and that feeling of panic: How am I going to serve all these people?” Bishop Seitz recalled. “So I looked at my brother bishops, and I said, ‘Do you think we could spend a few moments and help them out?’ And they all immediately responded.”

The bishops spread out in the church, each finding a quiet spot to hear confessions. In about 20 minutes, the line was gone and the no-longer-lone priest’s face was awash in gratitude.

But as the saying goes, an act of charity often benefits the giver just as much or even more than the receiver. For the American bishops, it was no different.

“As we reflected on it later, it struck us that God had really blessed us with an opportunity to practice the mercy that we’re called to in this holy year,” Bishop Seitz said.

More than three months into the Year of Mercy, this simple reflection struck a chord. Are we paying attention to the opportunities God is blessing us with during this holy year? Especially during Lent, is God calling us to practice mercy in a particular way? Are we, as did our bishops, noticing the signs?

We’ve got eight months to go.