Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUAREZ – This city that nearly lost its faith in God through years of horrific drug violence today welcomes Pope Francis with high hopes that he will bring a message of peace and reconciliation.
“People were hurting so badly,” said Carmelita Arceo, who owns a bakery near the U.S.-Mexico border and is a soprano who will sing at the pope’s afternoon Mass. “People stopped believing in God because they said, ‘Why me? Why me?’ But we know that God is merciful.”
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across New Mexico and Texas, Mexico’s Chihuahua state and beyond, have come to Ciudad Juárez to hear the papal Mass or catch a glimpse of the pontiff en route to one of his events today.
Pope Francis has already served as a symbol of hope for border residents who saw their cross-border traditions upended when the extreme violence of a turf war between rival drug cartels made it too dangerous for visits with family and friends.
Homicides topped 3,700 in 2010 and made the city a notorious murder capital. The violence has since ebbed and the city of 1.3 million residents is enjoying a period of relative calm.
“The truth is it’s been years since we’ve gone to Juárez,” said Rigoberto Mendoza, a Las Cruces resident who plans to attend the papal Mass with his wife and friends in Ciudad Juárez. “For many years it was very dangerous. God willing, things will change. That’s the hope we have.”
Albuquerque parishes distributed 500 free tickets to the Mass, which will be held outdoors within eyeshot of the border fence. The Diocese of Las Cruces handed out another 4,500 tickets. Doors were scheduled to open at 6 a.m. for the 4 p.m. Mass.
Arturo Morales lives in a neighborhood nearby and said he planned to attend with two friends. He was so excited, he said, “We’re not even going to sleep tonight.”
The years of violence took a toll on residents in a city that is overwhelmingly Catholic.
“Not only women but men, too, we lost our faith,” he said. “Not me though. I knew one day Juárez would get better. We’re on that path now.”
In a Tuesday homily in Mexico’s Michoacan state for clergy and other members of the religious order, Pope Francis spoke frankly about “not falling into temptation.”
“What temptation comes to us in environments so often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking and the devaluing of a person’s dignity, indifference before suffering and precarity?” he asked. “I think we can sum it up with the word ‘resignation’ … a resignation that paralyzes and doesn’t just prevent us from walking but from creating a path forward.”
Hundreds of billboards and signs bearing the pontiff’s image will greet Pope Francis when his “popemobile” drives down the long north-south Tecnológico Avenue that divides the city in half. The municipal government, hotels, autobody shops, a candy store and a funeral home are among the businesses advertising a welcome to the pope on billboards citywide.
He concludes his five-day visit today in Ciudad Juárez.
Some 45,000 volunteers will line the streets where the pope is scheduled to travel; another 2,500 will help at the papal Mass, said Father Luis Maldonado, a spokesman for the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez. More than 5,000 security agents including federal, state and municipal police and soldiers will patrol the city, he said.
The area on the U.S. side of the border in El Paso near the Mass will be cordoned off. About 600 “VIPs” – including victims of violence, young migrants and refugees – will be allowed to come within a few dozen feet of the fence and share in a prayer with the pope, according to Elizabeth O’Hara, spokeswoman for the Diocese of El Paso.
She said about 700 El Paso police officers will be working today, plus hundreds of other security agents including Texas Rangers, Border Patrol and the U.S. Marshals.
The increased security and prospect of difficult logistics – with numerous road closures on both sides of the border – didn’t seem to faze border residents who are starstruck by Pope Francis.
Myrna Fernandez walked along the chain-link fence erected to wall off the field where the Mass will be held. She plans to watch the pope drive by and “gets goosebumps” just thinking about Pope Francis, she said.
“He is going to renew and strengthen our faith,” she said, “and to make us feel cared for again after all the fear we felt.”