LAS CRUCES – With the pope’s confirmation that he will visit the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez early next year, many of New Mexico’s faithful are hoping for a chance to meet him, receive a blessing or at least catch a glimpse of a pontiff who has drawn enormous crowds in his visits to the U.S. and Africa.
Mexican church officials recently announced that Pope Francis will visit the country Feb. 12-20. The pope told the National Catholic Reporter this week that he plans to visit at least four cities in Mexico, working his way north and ending his visit in Juárez.
The city of 1.3 million, which shares a border with Texas and, on its outskirts, with New Mexico, suffered tremendous violence during a turf war that saw annual homicides peak at more than 3,700 in 2010. The violence has since ebbed, and Juárez has been working overtime to polish its image in the U.S. and abroad.
“He is very concerned about such a beautiful country being hollowed out by violence, by the drug trade, helping to break down family and society,” Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú said.
“He is committed to going to the heart of violence-torn areas,” said Janet Gildea of the New Mexico Sisters of Charity. “He will be a voice for peace. He will not be held back by fear for his personal safety. That is the message he is showing, whether he says it or not.”
The Sisters of Mercy, based in Doña Ana County, run a clinic for special-needs children in a poor neighborhood rimming Juárez.
Gildea says that, like other local organizations hoping for a meeting with the pontiff, the Sisters of Mercy hope to draft a letter and hand-deliver it to the Vatican next month inviting the pope to visit their clinic, Proyecto Santo Niño.
“He loves children with special needs,” she said. “He is always telling us to go to the margins. And he loves American sisters. We’re American sisters working with the most marginalized of special-needs children. Hope springs eternal. We at least want to let him know.”
Fernando Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights said his organization also wants to deliver a letter to the pope and possibly organize a visit with migrants.
“We expect that his visit will raise issues about the border,” he said. “Undoubtedly, it’s going to be immigration and abuses at the border. When I talk to people, they have high expectations.”
Cantú said he expects many New Mexico parishioners will want to attend the pope’s Mass and other activities. This coming week, he said, he expects to begin organizing with Catholic leadership in New Mexico, West Texas and Juárez to plan how to assist parishioners in crossing the border.
“I think it’s very exciting, him coming so close and knowing the issues he wants to address, they are dear to our hearts here,” said David McNeill, a Las Cruces deacon with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral, which in the summer of 2014 temporarily housed Central American families when a flood of migrants came over the South Texas border and overwhelmed immigration authorities.
“Hopefully he’ll be able to bring some movement on immigration questions and care for the poor. That has been a constant theme of his.”