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Border Catholics Wonder What Message Pope Francis Will Bring

Photo by Julián Aguila
The Texas Tribune
A cardboard cutout of His Holiness Pope Francis greets residents of Ciudad Juárez on January 16, 2016. Pope Francis will visit the border city in February as part of a six-day tour of Mexico."

CIUDAD JUAREZ  – Residents of this border city hope the rest of the world sees next month what Juarenses already know: Despite years of bloodshed and continuing poverty, the local spirit is high and its people are determined to persevere.

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Ciudad Juárez on Feb. 17 for the final stop on his six-day tour of Mexico. People here expect the visit will place the city once considered the most dangerous in the Americas under a new and positive light.

But there’s also an expectation that Pope Francis will arrive with his reputation for being outspoken on social issues like government corruption, immigration and poverty intact — and force officials on both sides of  the Rio Grande to take note.

“Corruption exists everywhere, but yes, he should address it,” said resident Jesus Carmona outside the city’s downtown cathedral earlier this month. “What I hope is that he speaks about the deaths in Ciudad Juárez. Thankfully, they aren’t as common, but now the cops are more heavy-handed than ever.”

The pope’s itinerary includes a visit to the state prison to pray with inmates and a meeting with business and school officials. He will also celebrate Mass near the city’s soccer stadium and then attend a private dinner with officials from the Ciudad Juárez Diocese.

Across the border, his Mass will be televised at Sun Bowl Stadium at the University of Texas at El Paso campus. Tens of thousands are expected to attend.

The pope's visit comes as Ciudad Juárez is attempting to rebrand its image after a drug war between the rival Juárez and Sinaloa cartels claimed thousands of lives from 2008 to 2012.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the famous Kentucky Club on downtown's Avenida Juárez hosted a near-capacity crowd while a live band played traditional ballads near the city’s cathedral. Banners and other signage on street corners reminded residents of the pope’s upcoming visit. Life-sized cutouts of the pontiff with the slogan “Juárez es Amor” ("Juárez is Love") made it easy for Catholics to take selfies with the leader of the church.

“It’s possible that he’ll touch on a lot of topics like poverty — but he’s mainly coming to deliver a message of hope and faith,” said Elson De La Cruz, a city employee working to promote the Pope’s visit. “I think what he’s going to say is something positive about Juárez and Mexico.”

But grassroots and human rights organizations are bracing for a more honest message that cuts directly to what they say ails Mexico the most: economic inequality.

“Ciudad Juárez is indeed a case study for Pope Francis' critique of the world economy,” Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute, wrote after first hearing of the Pope’s visit last November. “Its more than 200,000 poorly paid but skilled maquiladora workers have made Juárez a global hotspot for foreign direct investment and one of North America's economic powerhouses, emblematic of contemporary Mexico's growth without equality.”

Others expect immigration to be high on the pope’s list of controversial topics to address after he said last year that his crossing the border into the United States would be a “beautiful gesture.” There is no evidence to suggest the pope will attempt to actually cross, but his past suggestions that Americans should show immigrants more compassion has riled up some conservatives, who have begun to criticize the pope for what they deem his liberal tendencies.

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the El Paso Diocese said he expects the pontiff to touch on many themes, including immigration.

“Certainly when we come to issues concerning public policy on immigration, we are dealing with many complex issues,” he said in an email. “Nations have a right to secure borders, and there should be legal processes for accepting immigrants. But these legitimate points need to be balanced with a concern for the rights of those who are fleeing unimaginable violence and with the compassion that is a necessary foundation for peace between peoples and nations.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to issue a comment on the pope’s February visit, despite the governor’s Catholic faith and his stated commitment to establishing closer ties to the border region and Mexico.

Abbott has also received his share of criticism from immigrant rights and faith-based groups for filing the lawsuit that has halted President Obama’s immigration initiative known as DAPA, a case scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court later this year. Abbott is also adamantly opposed to Syrian refugees relocating to Texas.

Seitz said politics and faith have their “own proper spheres” and as governor, Abbott has a commitment and a duty to protect Texans. But he suggested Abbott might gain something from the pope’s visit nonetheless.

“The pope isn’t attempting to tell the governor or anyone else what laws they should enact or how they should fix these highly complex social issues," Seitz said. "The governor does have a responsibility to see to the well-being of our state's citizens. But perhaps this papal visit will be an opportunity for the governor and others to more carefully consider the place of compassion toward those who are fleeing to our borders and the implications of our state’s response upon their lives.”

The University of Texas at El Paso was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/01/26/border-catholics-anxiously-await-popes-message/.

The Texas Tribune is nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization.