With the poverty on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Pope Francis’ visit to the region in February will be an important opportunity for the Catholic Church “to emphasise the mercy of God that is at the core of the Christian faith”.
That’s how Catholic Extension views the trip, which will take place during the church’s newly launched Holy Year of Mercy.
“In building up the faith among the poor,” said Fr Jack Wall, president of Chicago-based Catholic Extension, “we are answering the Gospel call to serve ‘the least of our brothers and sisters’ and the Gospel mandate of the ‘preferential option for the poor’, which is a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.
“During his visit to the border, Pope Francis will undoubtedly show us the way,” he said in a statement.
On 12 December, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Vatican announced details about the pope’s 12-17 February visit to Mexico. He will visit some of the country’s most marginalised communities.
Pope Francis will stop in six cities, including two in the state of Chiapas and – across from El Paso, Texas – Ciudad Juarez.
Following the Vatican’s announcement, Catholic Extension issued a news release saying it will work with the diocese of El Paso to plan papal visit events on the U.S. side of the border. The Chicago-based papal society has a long history of providing support to El Paso and the other Catholic dioceses at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The pope is scheduled to be in Ciudad Juarez on 17 February and his visit will culminate with a 4pm Mass at Benito Juarez Stadium right next to the border. According to the diocese of El Paso, the Mass will include a cross-border component.
“We hope that in a special way Pope Francis’ visit to this region will give voice to these often voiceless people here on the border, especially children and families who are the most vulnerable,” said El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz.
“And we hope that his presence will facilitate a much-needed national dialogue that will help unite our own country around a compassionate response to the poor in our midst,” he added.
He also remarked on the fact the Vatican chose the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to officially announce the pope’s visit.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas. Devotion to her began in Mexico, but today unites Catholics across the Americas.
The 17 February papal Mass at the border is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from both the U.S. and Mexico.
Parishes in El Paso diocese and in the neighbouring diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, will receive tickets for their parishioners to attend the Mass in Juarez. In addition, the Texas diocese is working out details with local officials for its plans to have a simultaneous celebration of the Mass at the El Paso border fence.
Bishop Seitz added that the diocese was “very grateful to Catholic Extension for being an integral partner in this milestone event” and that its “long-standing support … helps us bring hope and faith to the marginalised”.
Since its founding in 1905, Catholic Extension has been supporting the work and ministries of U.S. mission dioceses, like the El Paso Diocese. They are defined as “mission” because these dioceses have limited resources for funding both basic and essential pastoral works and ministries, and cover a vast territory with a Catholic population served by a small number of priests, religious sisters and other pastoral workers.
Catholics make up 80 per cent of the total population of the 71,500-square-kilometre El Paso Diocese; it is the third highest Catholic percentage in the country, after the dioceses of Brownsville and Laredo, which are also in Texas.
According to Joe Boland, vice president of mission at Catholic Extension, U.S. mission dioceses “are places where the Catholic Church’s missionary spirit is alive and where the church is growing.”
As an example he pointed to the border diocese of Brownsville, where the Catholic population has tripled in size since 1980, to more than 1.2 million people.
Catholic Extension, founded in 1905, has had a special focus on Texas dioceses in Texas throughout its history. It said that adjusted for inflation, it has provided a total of more than $122 million to help U.S. dioceses along the U.S.-Mexico border with the building and repair of churches, the education and formation of priests and other leaders, and various ministries.
El Paso’s diocesan director of religious formation, Veronica Rayas, received funding from Catholic Extension to help her afford her education; Extension also supports her many faith formation programs in the diocese, including leadership formation, training and support to pastors, parish catechetical leaders and catechists.
Boland called Rayas a “true ‘missionary disciple’, as Pope Francis is calling all Catholics to be”.
“Innovative, hard-working, joyous, and faith-filled, she is a shining example of the kind of great leaders we have seen emerging in mission dioceses,” he added.
Catholic Extension also supports two positions in Rayas’ office – a coordinator of religious formation for rural west Texas and a specialist in confirmation. In addition, it provides a scholarship for graduate theology education and helps to fund the salary of two young adult leaders from the diocese.
In 2014, three members of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary ministering in the Brownsville Diocese were named the winners of Catholic Extension’s annual Lumen Christi (Light of Christ) Award.
Sisters Carolyn Kosub, Emily Jocson and Fatima Santiago arrived in the South Texas “colonia” of Penitas, located in the diocese of Brownsville, in 2003 after a tornado ravaged the poverty-ridden community, and since then have worked with residents to help meet some of their most basic needs.
They created Proyecto Desarrollo Humano (Project for Human Development), an outreach centre dedicated to evangelisation, health, social services and education.