In remarks before his Feb. 21 Sunday Angelus in Rome, Pope Francis compared his six-day visit to Mexico with that day’s Gospel reading — the story of the Transfiguration — telling the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square that the visit “was for all of us an experience of transfiguration.”
He added, “The Lord has shown us the light of his glory through the Body of the Church, of his holy people that lives in this land — a body so often wounded, a people so often oppressed, despised, violated in its dignity. The various encounters we lived in Mexico were truly full of light: the light of a faith that transfigures faces and illumines our path.”
One of these encounters of the Feb. 12-17 visit took place when the pope climbed a specially built platform just feet from the U.S.-Mexico border to place flowers at a cross that bore a symbol of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. After praying briefly, he looked from the city of Ciudad Juárez out into Texas and blessed the people gathered on the other side of the fence.
On his first trip outside Rome as pope, in July 2013, he tossed a wreath of flowers into the sea off the island of Lampedusa. Then, as now, he was recalling the tragedy of migrant deaths on borders that segregate rich from poor, the past from hope — in one case the Mediterranean, in this case the dry desert of northern Mexico.
A divided land
The pope’s final gesture of his six-day visit was always destined to be its climax. After visiting prisoners and addressing employers and workers in the city of 1.5 million people notorious for its sweatshops and drug cartels, he celebrated Mass in the fairground area of Ciudad Juárez, which together with El Paso over the border in Texas was once a single city known as El Paso del Norte.
Today, it is two cities, yet its societies and economies are closely intertwined: People live in Juárez and work and go to school in El Paso, while cheap labor in Juárez factories produce household goods that are sold over the border. But the inequalities are stark: A woman in a maquiladora earns $35 a week, while over in El Paso, the minimum wage is $7 an hour. And fewer than one-fourth of Juárez residents have the right to cross the bridge into the United States; the rest chance their luck with coyotes, or people-smugglers.
“Here in Ciudad Juárez, as in other border areas, are thousands of immigrants from Central America and other countries, not forgetting the many Mexicans who also seek to pass over ‘to the other side,’” the pope told a crowd of 250,000 gathered under a fierce sun on a dusty plain close to the border. “Each step, a journey laden with grave injustices,” he told them, “the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of a trade in human trafficking, the trafficking of persons.”
Acutely conscious that the massive displacement of people has become the most pressing issue in global politics — not just the millions who have crossed from Mexico into the United States over the past 50 years, but the hundreds of thousands of war-displaced Arabs now knocking at the doors of Europe — Pope Francis reframed the issue as a humanitarian crisis of suffering and vulnerability, one that demanded a compassionate, international response. “This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”
‘Hope among people’
Also taking part in the cross-border liturgy were 50,000 gathered in a stadium over the fence in El Paso, many of them undocumented migrants from Ciudad Juárez unable to return to their families without revealing their status and losing their higher paying jobs. Greeting them amid applause and cheers, Pope Francis said: “From the other side of the frontier ... thanks to technology, we can pray, sing and celebrate together that merciful love which God gives us, and which no frontier can prevent us from sharing.”
Many of those at the Mass spoke to Our Sunday Visitor of their hopes that the pope would draw attention to the sufferings of Mexican migrants: families divided, deportations, the young dying in the desert.
Having told the crowd, in his homily, how Nineveh in the Scripture story of the prophet Jonah had been saved by “men and women able to repent, and able to weep,” Pope Francis said that tears shed over injustices, degradation and oppression could lead to change by opening hearts.
Yet few accepted the invitation to cry until the end of Mass, when the pope spoke of the warmth and hope he had found in Mexico. “I assure you that on some occasions, as I passed by, I felt I wanted to cry on seeing so much hope among people who suffer so much.”
Throughout his six days, Francis held little back, addressing corruption, violence, the drug cartels, as well as the temptations facing the Church. Leaving and returning each day from Mexico City to a place of poverty or suffering — including the county’s southern and northern borders — the pope symbolically sought to reconnect center to periphery while focussing on those for whom God’s mercy assigns pride of place: the poorly paid, the indigenous, the victims of violence, the young, the sick and the migrants.
He had a similar message to both government and Church — to be close to the people, raising them up. “Each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all,” he told politicians at the National Palace, “sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development.”
In a powerful address to the Mexican bishops, Pope Francis sought to shine a light on the future pastoral direction of the Church — to evangelize through mercy, learning from Our Lady of Guadalupe — while warning of the temptations holding it back: haughtiness, worldliness and an attachment to back-room deals.
That afternoon, he prayed for 20 minutes before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the longest-ever silence in the history of Mexican live TV.
To the laypeople of Mexico, he offered the example of Juan Diego, who though powerless was open to receive the transforming message of “La Morenita.” To the clergy, he offered the example of the 16th-century Spanish bishop of Michoacán, Vasco de Quiroga, famous for his defense of the Indians. Carrying Tata Vasco’s crozier at Mass in his see of Morelia, Pope Francis invited the Mexican bishops to learn from his struggle for Indian rights in confronting the drug cartels in today’s Mexico, warning that an attitude of resignation “stifles our desire to take risks and to change.”
The visit was marked — as ever in Mexico — by cheering crowds and expressions of deep-seated, joyful faith. But it had a Lenten feel. Mexico, Pope Francis hinted in Ciudad Juárez, was like Nineveh, facing ruin from the violence and disorder it had generated within itself, yet with its salvation at hand. All that was needed were a few who were not resigned to fate, sent by a merciful God to save a people from itself: a Samaritan Church, in short, capable of being courageous prophets of mercy to a suffering people. There could be little doubt, after Francis’ whirlwind visit to Mexico, that this was the mission.
Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).