Sunday, July 01, 2018

Bench On A Mission – In Latest Push For Immigrant Families, USCCB Chiefs Run For The Border

Less than three weeks since Cardinal Joe Tobin of Newark called for a delegation of US bishops to head to the Mexican border in a show of solidarity with immigrant families being separated there, the plans have come together with stunning speed: late Friday, the conference announced that an unspecified group would make the visit on Monday, July 2nd, with the ground zero of the 2,000-plus displacements of parents from their children, South Texas' Rio Grande Valley, as the site.

The journey reportedly eyed at first for sometime in the fall by conference staff, but markedly sped up as key players cited the urgency of the moment, given the quick timeframe and the according logistical challenges, no other details have been formally relayed as yet. However, Whispers has learned that the core group for the trip is expected to be small, but top-level, led by the conference president, Houston's Cardinal Daniel DiNardo – who canceled his planned trip to Rome for last Thursday's Consistory to prioritize the border visit – and his deputy, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the de facto lead hand on messaging and strategy for the church's sharply ramped-up engagement on immigration matters. (The duo elected in the wake of President Trump's ascent to the White House, as vice-president, the Mexican-born Gomez is virtually certain to succeed DiNardo at the helm when their current three-year terms expire in November 2019, marking the first time the conference's top post will belong both to a Latino and the head of the nation's largest diocese.)

Beyond the USCCB executive, an op close to the planning said Saturday that just a handful of other, far junior prelates would be present aside from the mission's host and "tour-guide," Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville. A force in his own right – and one who enjoys a unique amount of high regard across the church's ideological divide – the 56 year-old's combination of intellectual heft and public-square skill has yielded a markedly increased profile for the booming 1.6 million-member fold encompassing the Valley: with the faithful comprising some 90 percent of its total population, long the Stateside church's most densely-Catholic turf, and a majority of it aged younger than 25.

Since Francis' election, Brownsville's newfound prominence has coincided with a "perfect storm" at its southern edge – the confluence of a Pope who's made advocacy for migrants his calling card amid increasing tensions over the issue in American politics and the church alike.

As the Valley church's daily ministry to the immigrant tide has arguably seen it emerge as the US' "poster diocese" for Francis' premium on the suffering "peripheries" of human existence, Flores and his team have been duly bolstered by both the pontiff and the wider Catholic scene: for the first time, earlier this year saw an auxiliary named to Brownsville, the 48 year-old Oratorian Mario Avilés – a Mexican-born local pastor with Roman experience – while the head of the diocese's Catholic Charities, Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, has rapidly become one of the US' most visible women religious, a trajectory capped this spring by her acceptance of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal (above), the first Latina ever to receive American Catholicism's most venerable award. (On the eve of the bishops' visit, the current spike of asylum seekers saw Sr Norma take to the local airwaves asking for help in finding a larger space to adequately serve those coming to Catholic Charities for aid, which she estimated as 100 to 200 families a day over recent weeks.)

Capped by a press conference with the visitors, tomorrow's event will be the US hierarchy's third major manifestation at the border in the last three years, following a 2014 Mass at Arizona's border fence led by Francis' top North American adviser, Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap. of Boston, and the 2016 gathering of several top US prelates at the Rio Grande's banks in El Paso, watching from the Texas side as the Pope celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juarez and laid a wreath at the border's edge in tribute to those who died making the effort to cross over (below). (Due to logistical hurdles, Francis' stated desire to pass into the US himself at the time could not be accommodated.)

With the specifics of tomorrow's schedule still to be released, the only known event of yet will be an 11am Central Mass today in the arena-esque Basilica of San Juan de la Valle, Brownsville's de facto cathedral employed for major diocesan events.

As ever, more as it transpires.