'Pope Francis VIPs' gather in El Paso to welcome pope to U.S.-Mexico border

IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Wiechec


PASO, Texas (CNS) — A group of people, mostly migrants, joined Pope Francis from
afar as he celebrated Mass that closed his visit to Mexico.

less than a football field length from the altar where the pope prayed Feb. 17 in
Cuidad Juarez, across the border in Mexico, the group of about 550 people cheered as they welcomed the pope to
their community, knowing he understood the reason people migrate from their
homelands in search of a better life.

Diocese of El Paso called them “Pope Francis VIPs” — to underline the pope’s
message of mercy and his closeness to the poor and migrants.

Francis acknowledged their presence with a wave and a blessing as they
assembled on a levee on the U.S. side of the border.

100 of the Pope Francis VIPs were unaccompanied minors who were detained by U.S.
immigration officers and live in three shelters in El Paso.

addition to the VIPs, U.S. bishops, pastors, religious sisters, social
workers and others who have been helping migrants and poor people along the
border were on the levee.

Tapia, a program director at Southwest Key Programs, which runs several
shelters throughout Texas, brought one group of teens from his shelter to the
levee. “Faith is such a big part of the kids’ journey,” he said,
“and seeing the pope today is the ultimate experience for them. It gives
them hope.”

of the minors, a 17-year-old girl, who could not give her a name, said she had many
problems in Tijuana, Mexico, before she came to the U.S., and that friends had
been shot by gangs.

Arturo Chavez, president of the
Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, said while waiting for
the pope’s arrival that the journey that migrants make “searching for a
better place” is often on his mind.

are here in the presence of unaccompanied minors who have been invited to be
here. I feel humbled to be a part of this historic moment. The excitement is
palpable,” Chavez said.

said that he had learned that the initial plan had been to extend the pope’s
platform across the river into the United States, but that it had not been
possible. “To me that was a very significant and powerful symbol: that
even the pope can’t cross this border. He can only go this far,” he said.

need to find a way to bridge these two nations,” Chavez added. “We
share one faith. I’m excited that the pope cares enough about this whole
situation to come all this way and to be with us today, so my hope is that his
compassion, his love, his mercy will inspire us to do the same and to do our

Sister Carolyn Kosub, a Missionary
Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, traveled to El Paso from the
impoverished border town of Penitas,
Texas, in the Diocese of Brownsville, where she and two other women religious have
dedicated their lives to ministering to poor migrants. “We came here
today,” she said, “representing the immigrant people in our

said she was moved by Pope Francis’ call to conversion in his homily.

Holy Father told us in his homily that we cannot continue to live the way we
have been living, he called us to transform our lives. We cannot continue to
exploit people, to deny them their human dignity. I think it’s a very powerful
message, a message that the whole world should ponder,” Sister Carolyn

what message she would bring back to her community, she said, “I am going
to tell them that the Holy Father has walked where they have walked, that he
understands their lives and their dreams, and that he believes as much in them
as they believe in him. Also that there’s a brighter future that awaits them
and that they have so many people on their side, including the pope. Their life
is a hard struggle, but it’s worth it. And that they can continue in their
faith and that they are not alone.”

Joe Boland, vice president of
mission for Catholic Extension, which helped the Diocese of El Paso
organize events on the U.S. side of the border, called the day extraordinary and
historic. “It was extraordinary especially for the people to whom Pope
Francis’ heart went out and who his prayer was for today,” he said.

are the ones who need access to the pope the most, the people who have been
victims of crimes, the people who are in detention as children, the people who
are powerless and voiceless,” Boland said. “Through this event, they
could see their pope, this global figure, come here and offer a prayer and a
message on their behalf, and that was very powerful. They heard the pope stand
with them, stand in their shoes, and in this Jubilee Year of Mercy press his
utter solidarity with the poor.”

At Catholic Extension, he added, “we’re so blessed and honored to have been part of it.”

Based in Chicago, Catholic Extension is a
papal society that supports under-resourced dioceses in the United States. It has
been a partner to the Diocese of El Paso for the organization’s entire 110-year
history and has provided assistance to the U.S. dioceses along the border
totaling more than $122 million in today’s money.

U.S. prelates — including Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of
Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops;
Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of
San Bernardino, California; and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the bishops’ migration committee
— distributed Communion to the people gathered on the levee. Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, USCCB general secretary, also distributed Communion.

Cardinal Mahony called the pope’s presence at the border a powerful sign.

“He’s really showing us the unity among peoples, that in God’s kingdom there are not border or barriers or walls,” the cardinal said. “His presence here is a powerful sign that the unity of all peoples is the ultimate path to peace in the world. … It isn’t arms, it’s not bombing people, it’s as he calls, encounter and dialogue.”

Cardinal Mahony said he had the opportunity to go to Cuidad Juarez to celebrate Mass with the pope, but that he chose to be on the U.S. side of the border.

Before the Mass, the cardinal spent time with young men wearing bright orange shirts with a Pope Francis motif. They are minors who arrived in the U.S. undocumented and “unaccompanied,” meaning without parents or guardians.

“I wanted to be on here on this side because most of these people can’t go to the other side,” he said. “I have hope and longing that some day it will be a lot easier for us to be brothers and sisters across borders.”

– – –

Contributing to this report was Nancy Wiechec.

– – –

Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Original Article