It was only Sr Norma Pimentel on the receiving end of a papal hug on 26 September at the New York home of Archbishop Bernardito Auza. But as she told Pope Francis, she was accepting the hug as a representative of women religious everywhere, immigrants and the volunteers they work with back home in Texas.
Sr Norma, a Missionary of Jesus from McAllen, Texas, has in the past few months found herself in unusually high-profile roles – addressing a forum at the United Nations, and participating with local people in a video conference with Pope Francis. In that, she was singled out by the pope to step forward for a personal conversation that later became part of an ABC News program.
But the invitation from Archbishop Auza, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations and overnight host of Pope Francis on 24 and 25 September, to come to his house on the day that the pope left New York for Philadelphia was the icing on the cake. The archbishop had invited her to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem, for a chance to greet the pope. She was there, but she said it didn’t work out for her to meet Pope Francis.
“That visit was about the children in the school,” she said. “It didn’t seem right.”
But Archbishop Auza had an alternative idea. “Come to my house at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning,” he told her. “You can give him your painting yourself.”
During their brief encounter, Sr Norma presented the pope with an original piece of artwork, a charcoal image she made of a mother and son who came to the outreach center for immigrants operated by the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Sr Norma is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. In the summer of 2014 when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families were being detained by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing into Texas from Mexico, hundreds of people a day were suddenly being released by the agency at the Brownsville bus station.
Sr Norma asked the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, a couple of blocks from the bus station, if Catholic Charities could use the parish hall for “a few days” to give the migrants a place to get food, clean clothes and a bit of a respite from what had been for many a harrowing journey across Central America and Mexico.
People being left at the bus terminal, mostly women and children, had been processed by the Border Patrol, given a bus ticket to reach family members in the United States and orders to check in with local immigration authorities for the continuation of their legal processing. Sr Norma said many of the people had not bathed or had clean clothes in days, some were still wet and muddy from crossing the Rio Grande. Most had not had a substantial meal for a long time.
The first day the hall opened, 200 people came seeking assistance. For months to come, 200 people a day came to the hall. Volunteers came to help from all over Texas and across the country. Local governments provided portable showers and portable bathrooms.
Although the numbers dwindled to 40 or so people a day during the winter, this summer they climbed again, Sr Norma told guests at a small reception for her.
As Sr Norma explained during a stopover in Maryland on her way home to Texas from New York, the chance to speak personally with the pope and to present him with her artwork was the capstone of a year of surprises.
Her acquaintance with Archbishop Auza grew out of a visit to Brownsville by members of Caritas Internationalis who visited the centre, went to the border and spent time with some of the people being served by and volunteering to operate the centre. Before long, Sr Norma was being invited to tell the world about the migrants’ situation and the efforts of Catholic Charities to, as she put it, “provide a little human dignity.”
During a 31 August videoconference organized by ABC News as part of a program for World News Tonight, Pope Francis signalled to Sr Norma, sitting in the audience, and called her to stand closer to the camera.
He thanked her and the volunteers for their hard work, adding, “and through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States. It’s great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward”.
Women religious around the country heard those words and took them to heart.
Sr Norma said she had heard from various people that sisters around the country were encouraged and thrilled by those words of the pope.
All that rolled into her mind as she met the pope in Archbishop Auza’s home, she said, and into what she was expressing as she asked Pope Francis if she could hug him.
“I hugged the Holy Father,” she said in amazement 12 hours later. “I hugged him more for all of you than for me.”