A reflection on Pope Francis' visit to Mexico

It was a privileged experience to be with the people in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, at the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on February 17 during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Preparations started for the pope's visit after Bishop Torres of this diocese made the announcement on December 12, 2015, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Catholic paper had articles every Sunday with Papa Francisco's homilies, talks, letters, and his position on immigrants, workers and violence: an excellent catechesis.

At first I felt badly that I would be seated at the pope's Mass among the religious with 20,000 people in the "red section." The 200,000-plus others would be standing behind us, some of whom were sick and elderly. However, I was able to help five victims of violence get red tickets. I had to assure our pastor Padre Arturo that they were victims of violence and that they would be sure to attend. "There are so many victims, hermana, who would like a red ticket."

I was happy to tell the pastor the stories of these five friends as follows:

Manuel owns a successful small business, and his wife Armida owns another in our colonia. Manuel was kidnapped twice. (Kidnappers and extortionist gangs pressure small business owners for all they have and for what these victims can get from friends and relatives.) In 2010, to fulfill the demand of 100,000 U.S. dollars, this required the family to borrow the money. He was released after three days and three nights. Then in 2011 Manuel was kidnapped again for the same amount. Armida finally got the money after six days and six nights, and he was released.

This second time a young man Abram, married with three little children, was next to him. Both were blindfolded, with wrists and ankles tied up. Abram said, "I am going to die. They are hitting me. I am bleeding. If you are freed, please visit my father and tell him I understand that he can't pay the $100,000. Tell him I love him. He is the best father in the world."

A week after Manuel was released, he and Armida went to visit the father, Gerardo. They knocked on the door, "Are you Abram Acosta's father?" "Yes. My son was killed. We buried him yesterday." Manuel broke down. When he composed himself, he told Gerardo how much his son loved him, that he understood he couldn't pay, that Abram said he is the best father in the world.

I asked Manuel if he could take us to Gerardo, whom we had not met. He brought Gerardo to Casa Tabor. Gerardo has suffered so much. He and his two brothers each had a small business. In 2010 a comando (a group of men usually in black with face covered carrying "long guns") went to one brother's place. The brother, being afraid, ran and was shot and killed. A short time later, a comando went to his other brother's place and kidnapped him for $100,000. The family somehow paid the money and his brother was released. But when his son Abram was kidnapped, the family was unable to pay yet another $100,000 dollars.

Yes, Manuel, Armida and Gerardo wanted to go to the pope's Mass.

In 2011, Carmen, a woman in my workshops, asked us to visit her daughter Laurie who had arrived after being kidnapped for two days and nights. Laurie, 40, has three daughters and a son. Her husband works as an accountant in a maquila (a factory for auto parts). They were demanded to pay $100,000. They paid $75,000 dollars and surrendered their cars. Laurie was released after psychological torture: they stripped her and threatened to rape her, to cut off her fingers and send them to her husband, kill her. On our first visit we found her in a fetal position. We visited her every day until she recovered and was able to return to her own home. She still doesn't sleep well at night; Carmen has aged; José, her father, had a heart attack. Laurie wanted to attend the Mass with her husband.

I wrote up the stories, and Padre Arturo gave me five red tickets. Wow! These people were so happy, kissing the tickets, thanking God. Now I felt good about going!

When the pope arrived at the airport, singing and chanting filled the air: "We are with you; you are with us."

He visited the prison and brought a message of mercy, forgiveness and hope to a group of 700 prisoners:

Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are. In many cases, they are a sign of silence and omissions, which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children. . . .

We know that we cannot turn back, we know what is done is done. …I wanted to celebrate with you the Jubilee of Mercy so that it may be clear that it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story.

Later with 4,000 business leaders and factory workers the pope said:

At first sight, [the groups] can seem like adversaries, but they are united by the same responsibility: seeking to create employment opportunities which are dignified and truly beneficial for society and especially for the young people of this land . . . .

. . . [P]overty and rejection then become the best breeding ground for the young to fall into the cycle of drug trafficking and violence.

God will hold accountable the slave owners of our day.

He ended with:

I want to invite you to dream . . . this will be achieved through talking, confronting, negotiating and sacrificing so everyone can gain. I invite you to dream of a Mexico that your children deserve.

When the pope approached for the Mass the people were standing and singing for him. He first walked up to a beautiful cross for the immigrants at the Rio Bravo to pray, leave flowers and bless the immigrants gathered on the USA side of the border. Then he entered to celebrate Mass.

In the homily he again spoke of Mercy.

Mercy always rejects wickedness. . . . Mercy seeks to transform each situation from within. . . . [Mercy] always enters into the situation of evil in order to transform it.

[T]here is always the possibility of change, we still have time to transform what is destroying us as a people, what is demeaning our humanity.

Tears are what can soften the heart; that can purify the gaze and help to see the cycle of sin into which very often we have sunk. . . . The tears are what make us sensitive to another's suffering . The tears are able to break us . . . opening us to conversion.

In this year of Mercy and in this place, I implore Divine Mercy, with you I wish to plead for the gift of tears, the gift of conversion.

During the consecration and Communion there was silence. Silence among 300,000 people. After Mass our Bishop Torres thanked the pope, and the pope thanked everyone for receiving him. He said he saw many lights here among the people that give hope for a new dawn.

It was such a beautiful experience to be here with people who have suffered so much. It didn't matter whether people were in the streets, stood or sat for hours that day; happiness and inner peace and hope were expressed.

Afterward, I spoke with our friends in the neighborhood who shared their feelings of joy and excitement over Pope Francis' visit. I went to talk to Carmen, mother of Laurie. "My daughter felt something come over her at the pope's Mass," she said. "You remember, she was depressed after the experience of the kidnapping. It never left her until now during the Mass."

A few days later Gerardo called: "Are you home? We've got to talk."

He arrived and it poured out: "When the pope passed in his popemobile, I suddenly had a strange feeling. I'm not a religious person. Since those years of violence, my son and brother killed, I have been depressed. I thought God was punishing me. Pope Francis came like a messenger from God. Suddenly my depression left! I am happy!"

"The crowd!" he exclaimed, his arms waving to describe the 200,000-plus at the Mass. "In the violence, the streets were empty. People shut themselves up in their house. Something in me now has changed! Juárez has changed."

However, shortly after the pope's visit we received emails from people in other countries and criticisms of some within Mexico as to why the pope did not meet with the families of the 43 students disappeared in Iguala. Or with the families of the women killed and or disappeared in Ciudad Juárez.

I explained that in Mexico since 1993, 39 priests, one bishop, one cardinal, one deacon, 215 journalists have been killed. Since 2007 in Mexico, 126,000 people have been killed, 25,000 disappeared. Here in Ciudad Juárez, since 1993 around 1,600 women have been killed and or disappeared, almost all of whom were not kidnapped for ransom. Around 14,400 men were killed and some disappeared. We had 11 massacres in 2010 through 2012. In some cases police and or military were present in these situations. In those same years, within an eight-block radius of our house, 14 people were killed. One evening, two blocks away, two young girls were shot and killed. Another day, three blocks away, three young men killed. Every store suffered extortion. People say the line separating the government, security forces and the drug world has never existed.  

How could the pope meet with one or two groups apart when the whole country is suffering? His schedule was packed with talks, Masses, spontaneous stops along the way. The pope by his words and presence invited the church to do an autocritica and invited the government to do something about the evils the people have communicated to him.

We here at Casa Tabor think Pope Francis is a great blessing for the world, for this country of Mexico, and for Ciudad Juárez. We are most interested to see how his presence and messages will affect things both here, as well as on the other side of this border. Our chief concern: Is the U.S. also listening and acting on Pope Francis' words?  

[Sister of Mercy Betty Campbell is co-founder of Tabor House & Community for contemplative political action and solidarity with Latin America. She has lived in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico since 1995. She conducts consciousness-raising workshops for delegations from the U.S. and workshops for women, and she accompanies the people and the church in the Justice and Peace Ministry there.]