Francis on the Borders

by Nick Patricca

[Originally published in WINDY CITY TIMES: Open to Thinking, Wednesday 02 March 2016]

By design, the itinerary of Francis in his first official visit to Mexico took him to its southern border with Guatemala in the state of Chiapas and to its northern border with the USA in the state of Chihuahua.

This border-framing of the visit to Mexico of El Papa Francisco --- the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope to take the name of Francis, and the first non-European pope since the Syrian Gregory III in 741 of our common era --- placed an intense spotlight on an essential theme in his apostolate: concern for individuals and peoples who are forced to live their lives on the margins of their societies.

In Chiapas, Francis addressed the horrific plight of the migrant-refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, who are fleeing across Mexico’s southern border to escape the endemic violence in their countries caused by civil wars, corruption, and narco-terrorist gangs. The collapse of their societies has forced these Central American migrants to make the perilous journey from their respective countries through Mexico to its northern border with the United States where they hope to find safety and the possibility of living human – humane – lives with the chance of a real future.

Francis took to task the corrupt Mexican officials who prey upon these migrants and who tolerate or collude with local narco-terrorist gangs which have taken up the extremely lucrative business of human trafficking and slavery to supplement their drug and arms dealings.
In the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas -- named in part after Bartolomé de las Casas the great 16th century champion of the rights of original peoples – Francis focused his spotlight on the indigenous peoples of Chiapas who comprise more than 35% of the population and who live, for the most part, in poverty.

Francis celebrated a mass and lunched with representatives of these indigenous peoples, thereby affirming the legacy of Samuel Ruiz, a former bishop of San Cristóbal who had been censored by the Vatican for promoting the social and labor rights of indigenous peoples and the use of original languages and practices in Catholic rituals.

In the West-Central state of Michoacán, Francis continued his special focus on the marginalization of indigenous peoples by meeting with representatives of the Purépecha and other original peoples. In Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, four young people asked Francis to address the problems of narco-terrorist violence in their communities and of the lack of suitable employment. In response, Francis delivered a strong admonishment to the Mexican government and the Mexican elite, accusing them of greed, incompetence, and indifference to the welfare of the poor and of the young. He specifically noted that in many communities the local officials were in collusion with the drug cartels and gangs.

By leveling this serious charge against corrupt and compromised authority Francis highlighted another form of marginalization: the fate of citizens caught in the disintegration of civil society and trapped in situations without legitimate means for obtaining justice --- a particularly heinous example, the kidnapping and killing of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the state of Guerrero in 2014 by local and state police in collusion with the mayor and local drug gangs.

In the Mexican city of Juarez, on the banks of the Rio Grande, surrounded by crosses representing the six thousand migrants who have lost their lives trying to cross over into the USA, Francis prayed in silence, facing the city of El Paso -- keeping in his heart and mind the open letter of the Christian base communities, the private letter from the sisters who minister to the peoples of Juarez, the petitions of the mothers of the disappeared young women.
In his three years as pope, Francis has demonstrated a special compassion for migrants and refugees. But, we must understand this concern of Francis as part of his commitment to meet the needs of all individuals and peoples who are forced to live on the borders, who are forced to cross frontiers, in order to become fully human, to be creative citizens.

As Francis has called upon governments and societies to respond to the needs of the powerless, those who live on the margins of their communities, I call upon Francis to boldly push his church to meet the needs of those who suffered sexual abuse from clergy, of those who suffer the arbitrary abuse of power by church authorities, and to recognize the rights of women, gays, the divorced and others to full participation in the life of the church.

PUBLISHED MARCH 2016