El Paso bishop: Being Christian ‘implies actions’

OSV Newsweekly Editor Gretchen R. Crowe spoke to Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, following Pope Francis' trip to Mexico, where the Holy Father celebrated Mass just across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez. This interview is a follow up to an initial conversation, which took place in December 2015

Our Sunday Visitor: When we spoke in December, you told me how important the unity of the area between Juarez and El Paso is, and how we need to build bridges instead of fences. It's interesting that two months later, just after the pope's visit, such attention should be given to yesterday's "dispute" between Pope Francis and Donald Trump. How do you interpret what the Holy Father meant by his statement on the plane, and how should Catholics best understand the situation that is being so hyped in the secular media?

Bishop Mark J. Seitz: I think Donald Trump even made a statement this morning that softened his reaction after he saw the words of Pope Francis and the question he was responding to. The question, if you read it in context, talks about not only building a wall but also deporting 11 million people and dividing families and so on. So that's one aspect. Be sure to read the whole thing in context. The pope also says himself, "If that's what he said," but "at this point I give him the benefit of the doubt."

Another aspect would be, I think we need to understand the language that the pope was using. For many people in this country, to be a Christian simply means that we say, "well yes, I believe in God, and I believe that Jesus is the Son of God." But for us, to be a Christian implies actions. It implies that we are seeking to live in accord with the teachings and the actions of Jesus, and that we understand that's a constant challenge and struggle. Pope Francis, when he's asked to define himself, he says, "I am a sinner." So none of us is "Christian" in the fullest sense of the word. None of us is — because we have not always applied the teachings and actions of Jesus in our daily lives. So it's much more than just saying, "I believe in Jesus." And the pope wasn't questioning if (Trump) believed in God or believed in Jesus. But he was saying that if (Trump) indeed said some of the things that the questions suggested, that those were not in accord with the Gospel, and therefore not in accord with being a Christian.

Pope Francis prays overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border before celebrating Mass Feb. 17 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. About 550 guests situated on a levee north of the Rio Grande in Texas took part in the Mass. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The Gospel calls us to have a sacrificial love for the other — and a special love for the poor, for anyone who is in need. Parable after parable, teaching after teaching, action after action of Jesus makes that clear. So an attitude or an approach that says, "I can be concerned only about me or my particular group and not others who are suffering" is not in accord with the Gospels. 

OSV: In his homily in Juarez, the Holy Father had a particularly eloquent quote when it came to immigration: "This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families." How do you think this can be done? Why is it an important point?

Bishop Seitz: We're not called to love numbers, we're not called to love statistics, even though some people really get into them. We're called to love people. We're called to love all of God's creation, but especially those he placed at the pinnacle of his creative work: fellow human beings. It's such an important distinction. I think it's easy for people when they're considering public policy to just revert to numbers. They're so much easier. They're so lacking in any kind of moral demand. But when what the Church continually says — and I think once again we are so much in line with Jesus on this — that you have to see the human face, you have to recognize the dignity of the human person, that means that we can't say, "Well, i'm going to love these and not those."

Now, obviously, we'll have a special responsibility toward those who are closest to us. But Jesus himself points out that that is not enough. He says in the fifth chapter of Matthew, after he's given the Sermon on the Mount, "If you love those who love you, what good is that? Even the pagans do as much." And that's when he goes on to call us even to love our enemy. Well, if we're called to love our enemy, the person who might want to hurt us or to kill us, then how much more should we love innocent people who are fleeing for their lives and find themselves at the doorstep of our country? To be a Christian requires that we have that kind of love that extends beyond those who love us.

OSV: How can this be better accomplished?

Bishop Seitz: Really, it's a thing of grace. I don't think people can love this way by themselves. And for a Christian, everything depends on grace. So we need to do those things that draw us closer to God: for us, that means taking part in the life of the sacraments, it means praying daily, it means reading the Scriptures. It means reflecting every day on how we can live more fully this call to be an instrument in God's hands in our relationships with others.

OSV: Pope Francis spoke often of mercy during his trip. What do you think was the message of mercy he was trying to convey to the Mexican people?

Bishop Seitz: One thing that has become clear to me is that even though we might like to narrow down the pope's teaching on mercy, he really has a very fully developed notion of mercy, and it begins by recognizing that each one of us are recipients of God's merciful love. And then, in order to fully participate in that offer of mercy, it requires that we look in our hearts and recognize that we need it. Because each of us are sinners. If you read his book, he's particularly clear on this. So while he calls people in power, for instance, to practice mercy, while he calls narco-traffickers to be merciful and not to use violence, he really is calling every person in society to practice that life of mercy. I was particularly moved to hear him speak about the need for reconciliation in Mexico. So many people have been hurt by this violence, and unless there's forgiveness and reconciliation, then what would happen is that an unending chain of new violence would be created. So ultimately, while he calls all of society, and particularly those with particular responsibility for that violence to change, he's speaking to every human person and calling them to that recognition: that they themselves need to change, to acknowledge their sins and open themselves to God's mercy.

OSV: The papal visit was an opportunity for such a type of healing. Do you think that was achieved?

Bishop Seitz: Catholics believe in miracles, but we don't believe in magic. In terms of magic, you can say "Hocus Pocus" and a rabbit appears, something changes. But for human beings, the miracles we often miss are the ones that happen in peoples' hearts, and unfold not instantaneously on command, but over time. I'm very hopeful that the people of Juarez in particular will look back on this time as a turning point that was filled with grace for them. A time in which they believed once again that they could rebuild their community and put the violence and the pain behind them. I think that it was an opportunity as well for the world to begin to see that happening. Without the Holy Father's presence, God would have continued his work, but he used this event to really create an essential moment in which that community could turn a corner. I'm very hopeful. I think the people of Juarez revealed their goodness in these days. Everyone spoke about their hospitality and their generosity of spirit. For a while people were afraid even to gather in small groups to go to a restaurant in the evening and so on, that had begun to change. But to see thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Juarez, and not a single incident that I've heard of took place in that day — wow. It was just incredible.

OSV: There were so many moving moments during this trip, but one of the most touching visits was when Pope Francis visited the jail in Ciudad Juarez. What struck you most about that visit?

Bishop Seitz: [Pope Francis] has such a great way of recognizing the dignity of every person. He called [the prisoners], it was very interesting, to forgive society if they have been forgotten, if they haven't been treated according to their human dignity by people in society. That was very moving to me, and so important for the prisoners to hear that because prison can be a place in which people just grow angrier and angrier. He pointed out that it needs to be a place where they really prepare for a new beginning in their life, and they need also to forgive.

OSV: The Holy Father didn't cross into the United States — were you disappointed? Had you been thinking he might? 

Bishop Seitz: I knew from the beginning that the pope had just come to the United States and although at one time he had said that he would love to enter the U.S. from Mexico like a migrant, I knew that once he had been here, he wasn't likely to come back. Crossing the border implied a whole other state visit, even if it was just to step across the line. So I wasn't expecting that. But he came right to the edge. And he didn't need to do that. He chose to take that opportunity to pray for migrants and then to greet migrants who were gathered at the fence and to greet our entire community in El Paso. At the end of his homily he specifically greeted those of us who were gathered in the Sun Bowl on that day. I think the Holy Father had a message in his coming here and certainly in those actions, and that is that borders don't need to be the points of demarcation between two separate worlds where we have those who belong and those who are aliens. Borders can be places rather where people of two great countries meet — and where they develop a sense of love and fraternity. 

OSV: You mentioned when we spoke of a coalition of "border bishops" in Mexico and the United States that meets regularly. How will Pope Francis' visit affect those meetings or the communication within this group? 

Bishop Seitz: We call ourselves the "Tex-Mex bishops." I think it will also breathe a new life into that organization as well. It's already a group of very committed people, but I think the pope, by emphasizing the importance of these relationships across the borders, has certainly given a new impetus to this work. We're going to actually meet in a couple of weeks, and i'm really looking forward to reflecting on what we've taken away from that event and to see what we might do in the future to build upon that relationship we have across the border.

OSV: Did you concelebrate at the papal Mass?

Bishop Seitz: I did. I had the opportunity to greet the pope on the tarmac at the airport. There were 5,000 people gathered at the airport to greet him, but a group of bishops and civil leaders ... and there were some children also who had been chosen to welcome the pope in the name of the many children who were gathered there. We formed a line on the red carpet, and the pope came down the stairs from the plane, he came along that line and greeted each one of us. The bishop of Juarez was introducing the different people along the way, and when he introduced me to the pope and mentioned my name, I thanked the pope in Spanish for his service of the Gospel, he looked at me in a very focused way, and said, "I want to thank you for organizing that event in El Paso" [the group of people attending the "virtual Mass" at the Sun Bowl in El Paso in conjunction with the Mass in Juarez]. It was pretty amazing to think that he was that conscious of this, and I think certainly shows his support. I think it served exactly what he wanted to communicate by his visit here, one of the things anyway.

At the end of the Mass, he had a little addendum, and he specifically greeted the people at the Sun Bowl, and I was just delighted that he did that. I understand that the people went wild there at the Sun Bowl. And then he mentioned my name, which totally shocked me, and basically thanked me again. It was pretty amazing. Hearing that, two thoughts came into my head: One was, however long you live, how will you ever top this moment — and, in the words of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, "now Lord you can let your servant go in peace." And the other thought I had was: Now I need to rededicate myself to this call that i've received. I've been called out. By mentioning the bishop, he was honoring the whole Church of El Paso. It was wonderful.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.