On February 17, 2016, a quarter of a million people converged on El Punto Fairgrounds in Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. – Mexico border to welcome Pope Francis on the final stop of his historic six-day visit to Mexico. Among them was a large and excited contingent of Lasallians from the Districts of México Norte, Midwest, and San Francisco New Orleans.
Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas hosted over 140 of the Young Lasallians, educators, and Christian Brothers who made the trip for the Papal visit and Mass. Cathedral second-year Lasallian Volunteer Sheila Garcia was the primary host organizer, handling much of the onsite arrangements and logistics for the travelers’ three-day visit.
Thirteen Lasallian schools and communities were represented in this international gathering. México Norte District’s attendees were from Colegio Regiomontano Contry; Instituto Regiomontano Unidad Chepevera; Comunidad de Monclova; Unidad Cumbres; Comunidad de la Casa Hogar; Instituto La Salle de Chihuahua; Escuela San Juan Bautista De La Salle; Colegio Regis – La Salle; and Comunidad del Aspirantado Interdistrital. The Midwest District’s attendees were from Totino-Grace High School, Fridley, MN. The San Francisco New Orleans District’s attendees were from Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, San Francisco, CA; San Miguel High School, Tucson; AZ; and host Cathedral High School.
Most of the Lasallians arrived at Cathedral on February 15, where they were greeted with a performance from a local parish matachines (traditional religious ritual dance) group and a welcome by Cathedral president Brother Nick Gonzalez and Cathedral student representatives Jacobo Tiscareno and Miguel Escoto. All then joined together in a special prayer service: “Let us not only bring together our hearts and our minds, but let us also bring together the places from where we have all journeyed.” Each group then presented sand from their city, pouring it into one basin while saying, “Unidos como Lasalliastas somos una familia!” – “United as Lasallians we are one family!”
Dinner that evening was followed by community building activities that included each school coming up with a cheer to introduce themselves, and then designing posters and skits about the 7 corporal works of mercy. Remembering that first evening, Cathedral senior Jacob Rey reflected, “We were Lasallians from two countries, two very different places, that came together as one to celebrate one universal religion.”
February 16 began with a welcome by Cathedral principal Mrs. Aurora Lujan and a prayer led by San Miguel High School. After breakfast, three panelists spoke on how Pope Francis’ mission has impacted them and those they serve. Brother David Alejandro Garcia De La Peña from México Norte stressed the importance of Lasallians worldwide being “Lasallians Without Borders” and how Pope Francis’ message of mercy and his pilgrimage to Ciudad Juárez relates to the larger Lasallian mission. Bishop Gerald Kicanas from the Diocese of Tucson focused on the steps U.S. bishops have taken on behalf of immigration reform, the role the Church plays in this issue, and what Pope Francis is asking all Catholics to do during the Year of Mercy. Finally, Mr. Dylan Corbett, Executive Director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, spoke on the realities of living along the border and why the Pope decided to come here.
That afternoon, the group crossed the international border to Ciudad Juárez and the Oratorio Salesiano (Salesian Community Center), where it spent the night. Upon arriving, some schools decided to work off their building excitement by playing soccer and basketball, while others decided to check out the local mall. Later, Ms. Kennena Amuzie, El Otro Lado coordinator from San Miguel High School, led everyone in group discussions on the article, Going Beyond the Border, by Brother Jorge Gallardo, FSC. Mass came next, which included guests from the neighborhood and a special blessing of our Lasallians. Rounding out the day was a brief presentation about the SFNO Lasallians Without Borders Committee, its current projects, and its goals for this year.
February 17 began at 5:30 a.m. with breakfast and morning prayer. Supplied with sunscreen, bug repellent, and snacks to last the day, the pilgrims began the trek to El Punto Fairgrounds for the Papal Mass. Arriving at 7:30 a.m., they found that there were already hundreds of other Mass attendees waiting in lines for either the red, yellow, green, or purple seating sections. Little did the group know that there would be many checkpoints and lines, and that they would finally enter their assigned section at 1 p.m.!
During the 3 hour wait for Pope Francis’ arrival, the faithful passed the time in prayer, song, and dance. Meanwhile, another group of Lasallians were at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Sun Bowl stadium. The Catholic Diocese of El Paso was hosted an event, “Two Nations, One Faith”, for those who were unable to attend the Mass. A number of students from Cathedral High School, San Miguel High School, and Totino-Grace High School would join over 28,000 people to watch the Mass via jumbotron and receive a special blessing from the Pope.
Back in Ciudad Juárez, Pope Francis had arrived! He drove by the different sections to greet the faithful who had waited so long in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. Their waiting soon paid off, as he passed close by the crowds, including our Lasallians, who waved their hellos and shouted the Pope’s name.
Then came the highlight of the day as Mass began. During his homily, Pope Francis delivered a powerful message to those who were there and to the rest of the world, saying in part, “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts like the Ninevites, open to his call heard in the suffering of countless men and women. No more death! No more exploitation! There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God. Just as in Jonas’ time, so too today may we commit ourselves to conversion, may we be signs lighting the way and announcing salvation.”
To all those listening, the Pope’s words rang loud and clear, touching the hearts and souls of those gathered. Not a dry eye was left after the homily ended. Cathedral senior Pablo Herrera commented, “The toughest borders to cross do not have a security checkpoint, nor do they ask for a passport. The toughest borders to cross are spiritual. Pope Francis is a living example of how a dedicated heart can achieve peace and ultimately tear down those borders.”
At the end of the Papal Mass, everyone gathered once last time at the Oratorio Salesiano to say their goodbyes and begin their trips home, all of them carrying a fire that had been lit within them by their experience. Many of them left with a renewed sense of purpose to truly live out our Lasallian mission. Cathedral High School president Brother Nick Gonzalez said, “I felt extremely humbled that this international gathering of young and old Lasallians was given the space to grow in the way it did. The communities, the different people involved and their generosity, truly made this spiritual gathering a moment that gave us the chance to experience the compassion that one can share with anyone who is willing or needing.”
Story contributed by Sheila Garcia, Lasallian Volunteer, Cathedral High School, El Paso, TX.
Photos courtesy Brothers Chris Patiño, FSC and Alejandro González Cerna, FSC; and Cathedral High School, El Paso, TX.