February 8, 2016 — When Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juárez at the end of his visit to Mexico this month, he will be just across the Rio Grande from a Jesuit parish in El Paso, Texas. Sacred Heart Parish is the closest U.S. Jesuit ministry to the Mexican border, so close that pedestrians on the bridge over the Rio Grande can see the Sacred Heart steeple just a few blocks away as soon as they exit customs. During the week of February 14-20, they will be greeted by large banners in front of the church welcoming “Papa Francisco.”
In many respects, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, comprise one metropolitan area, with citizens of each travelling back and forth with regularity. So the visit to Juárez is reason for celebration and anticipation on the U.S. side of the border, too. Not just for the event, but for the message behind the visit.
“Pope Francis is making a point of visiting places that other popes did not,” Jesuit Father Ron Gonzales, pastor of Sacred Heart, observed. “He wants to be with the people on the margins. Ciudad Juárez is home to many people who are poor, homeless, suffering. It is a place of poverty and violence, and it serves as an entry point into the United States.”
Built in 1892, by Fr. Carlos Pinto, SJ, known as the Apostle of El Paso, Sacred Heart — or Sagrado Corazon, as parishioners call it — has always served a Spanish-speaking population in this American city. The parish provides liturgy and sacraments to Catholics on both sides of the border. Many who come for early-morning Mass live in Ciudad Juárez, but work in El Paso.
Pope Francis will be in Mexico February 12-18, and in Ciudad Juárez on the 17th. The Diocese of El Paso has asked that parishes not host events on the Feb. 17 that might detract from their own plans. The highlight of the diocesan celebration is "Two Nations, One Faith" at the Sun Bowl Stadium, beginning at noon on Feb. 17. Two Nations, One Faith will feature entertainment and a live screening of the papal mass in Juárez.
The Jesuits of the Sacred Heart Community will continue their regular ministries while the pope visits across the Rio Grande, including celebrating Mass on schedule. But they’ll have a few additional duties, including hosting Jesuits and Jesuit Volunteers who are coming for the papal visit. The people of the parish also plan to erect a special shrine and hang large banners outside the front of the church. Mass intentions for the week of his visit will be for the pope’s safety and well-being.
For on-site reports of what’s happening in Juárez during the pope’s visit, follow Jesuit Father Pepe Ruiz's blog, A Jesuit from Juárez. Additionally, view a two-minute video below of Fr. Gonzalez speaking with ABC-7 KVIA El Paso about Pope Francis' visit:
According to the U.S. Census, the neighborhood around Sacred Heart Parish has a 64.4 percent poverty rate. The city of El Paso estimates the unemployment rate in that area is 29 percent; only 18 percent of the adults have high school degrees. Known among its neighbors as the “Heart of the Barrio,” Sacred Heart is recognized as a safe place with effective programs and caring staff concerned about both documented and undocumented people.
Along with a vibrant sacramental life, the church provides an adult education program offering various courses and a social service center assisting with the needs of the poor in the area. The Centro Pastoral, housed in a former high school, offers a variety of adult courses in computers and preparation for the citizenship exam. Nearly all of its students are poor.
On Fridays, a group of volunteers staff La Dispensa, the parish food bank. Jesuit Father Michael Chesney works with eight volunteers in the St. Vincent de Paul program. The volunteers assess the needs and deliver emergency help to people.
The parish even runs its own restaurant, La Tilma, housed in the gym of the former youth center. The restaurant does not make money, but Fr. Gonzales thinks it gets people involved in the parish.
Sacred Heart Parish has been continuously staffed by Jesuits since its founding nearly 125 years ago. The original church was replaced in 1928-29 by the present, larger church. The capacity for 2,000 worshippers was necessary to accommodate the influx of Mexican refugees during that period of religious persecution in Mexico. [Source: Central and Southern Province, KVIA.com]
Click here to read more in Sacred Heart in El Paso: A Jesuit Parish on the Border.