Wednesday, February 17, 2016

At The Border, El Día de "Los Ultimos"

Given the risk of missing the forest for the trees, the Mexican PopeTrip now reaching its end has best been viewed with the focus pulled back – not just across the five days of stops, but the broad sweep of this pontificate... and, indeed, the long, complex history that illustrates the moments we've just seen in their most vivid light.

There'll be more to lay that out in due course. For now, with the surface of the scenes having yielded another host of "vintage Francis" moments, even as the pontiff's travels to a downtrodden capital suburb, to the marginalized indigenous people of Chiapas and the heart of the violence-ridden drug trade in Michoacán serve to reaffirm the Pope's commitment to a "church of the peripheries" and together make for one big "Matthew 25 stop," with today's closing leg on the Mexican-US border at Ciudad Juarez, a slightly different context bears keeping in mind.

Set to climax around 4pm Central time (1900 Rome) with a silent papal prayer at a specially-built overlook on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande (top) – as several hundred immigrants and church leaders take part from the opposite bank on US soil – today's act before the visit's final Mass is the direct descendant of two earlier moments which drove the question of migration into the very foundation of the American church's social magisterium in the age of Francis: the July 2013 journey to Europe's "Ellis Island" at Lampedusa, which marked the new Pope's first trip outside of Rome; and the USCCB initiative to bring the gesture home with an April 2014 Mass at the Mexican border in Arizona, led by Papa Bergoglio's principal North American adviser, Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap.

In particular, the latter event proved the catalyst for today's pilgrimage – said to have been especially moved on seeing images of Communion being distributed into the outstretched hands of Mexicans through slats in the boundary fence (above), the Arizona Mass galvanized Papa Bergoglio to follow suit; within a month of it, reports emerged that Francis had begun asking around about the right Mexico-US crossing to not merely visit, but from which he would enter the US after a leg in Mexico.

Between the competing logistics of the 2015 travel calendar – and, so it's said, a push against the plan from some influential figures on its northern end – the desired passage ended up being scuttled as part of last year's US trip. Nevertheless, this afternoon in the very town which has long been most closely linked to border-related violence brings the fruition of a wish two years in the making, the trajectory of which underscores the pontiff's determination to accomplish those things he's set his heart on doing, however daunting the obstacles placed in his path. And as it unfolds, it's almost too easy to recall the powerful greeting on a makeshift banner hoisted at Lampedusa as Francis arrived for that first remarkable day at the border: in the original, it read "Benvenuto tra gli ultimi"... English, "Welcome among the least."

Admittedly, the line's more potent in Italian or Spanish – in both, "ultimo" and its derivitaves interchangeably mean what Anglophones would render as "the last," "the least," "the latest," "the edge," or "the extreme."

Sure, there's a sense of each in what happens today on the southern Rio Grande... but on its other side, perhaps another facet of "ultimate" tops all the rest: just shy of five months since the rest of it happened, only this afternoon will the first-ever encounter of an American Pope with the Stateside church be truly, finally complete.

Along those lines, below is the closing passage of Francis' address to the bishops of the United States, given in Washington's St Matthew's Cathedral last 23 September:

My final recommendation has to do with immigrants. I ask you to excuse me if in some way I am pleading my own case. The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these “pilgrims”. From the beginning you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper, and kept alive the flame of their faith. Even today, no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities. Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you. Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.