“What was I thinking? I had way too much dinner — now, if I get shot in the gut, I’ll get peritonitis for sure.”
Those words ran through my head one night in 2011 as I drove to the hospital to anoint a parishioner; and no, I am not a psychiatrically certified paranoiac. I run a parish in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a city that has seen hundreds of violent deaths over the last several years.
This morning I received an email from the local U.S. Consulate that advised about the dangers of travel in Mexico. Kidnappings, the message warned, have doubled in number in this northern state of Tamaulipas; to blame for these “threats to safety and security” are the “Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) working in the country.”
I am glad to see that the consul doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t write, for instance, that Nuevo Laredo is the international headquarters for the most feared and violent cartel in Mexico. (That organization will go unnamed here, for my own safety.) Carjackings, the consul might have said, are the task of only the incoming novices in the organization. Torture, murder and executions of entire families is the trade of midlevel members. Beheadings were not mentioned either. Ten days ago we celebrated Masses for three young men who died eight blocks from the parish in that fashion, in broad daylight, in an open field. The parishioner witnesses still shudder.
Other parishioners have nightmares about the street executions of mafiosos at the hands of the military. A hundred yards from our Chapel of Santa Isabel, six young gang members who had relinquished their arms to the soldiers after a gunfight were forced to kneel and receive a bullet each.
Then there are the nameless victims. At our Santa Rosa chapel, which is surrounded by several acres of mesquite trees, it is not uncommon to offer Mass with the stench of a decaying dog in the background. The government-run services do not efficiently remove all the refuse in the newer, nearby settlements, so the mesquite patch is a favorite dump site. Those at Mass told me one muggy day, however, that what we had assumed to be a canine was discovered to be a human corpse — an unidentified, “nameless” young male.
“Why are you there?” asked the worried ladies at a wedding reception in Laredo, Texas, just north of the Rio Grande. “Don’t go back. Why don’t you stay here where it is safe?” The answer for my team of religious and for me is that we are hope-brokers in hell. We are here offering God and His joy and peace where it is most needed. I serve with three religious sisters — a Guatemalan, a Mexican and a Texan — and a brother priest who is a ’79 Notre Dame grad, and we believe God wills us to be here. This is His mission, and the nucleus of the mission is to reveal His unfailing love.
God is love, we learned in grade school catechism in Chicago or Houston or wherever we grew up, but here in the midst of a civil war in which, by some estimates, 100,000 Mexicans have been killed throughout the country in the last six years, it is essential to reiterate that revelation: God is love.
God is medicine for this human hemorrhage. Pope Francis untiringly calls all Catholics to go to the periphery of existence and offer joy and peace to the sorest and saddest. This you can do among your relatives and neighbors, he says; go to the abandoned elderly in your midst or the black sheep of the family. We missionaries do that here on the periphery of the human family. Jesus’ Incarnation and Crucifixion are perennial lessons in the gratuitousness and splendor of His love, but He still relies on missionaries to preach that He came and He cares. Emmanuel is here in Nuevo Laredo, too.
We have, of course, many local teachers in Christ’s way. Before celebrating a funeral Mass for a gang member killed by the military, I spoke with his mother, who said her son had been in the cartel for only two weeks. I knew the lad; I had on occasion given him work watering the parish trees. She said that when he joined the gang she prayed he would be killed before he was obliged to murder. Her prayer was answered.
Then there are the wives and mothers and grandmothers who have lost their men and boys, and they decide to forgive. They come to Mass to pray for their desaparecido, their disappeared, and then they come to Mass to give thanks when a missing boy is discovered alive, or they come to pray for his soul when a body is found. And they forgive whoever it was — a rival gang member? the commander in their son’s own gang? the soldiers? They never find out in many cases, but “Pero no importa, Padre, yo los perdono.” “Whoever it was, I forgive him.”
We also have teachers of patience and detachment. I think of Piedad, who lost muscle function and feeling in her legs because of a car wreck. When the rats in her house started eating her toes as she slept, she didn’t find out till the next morning. God bless her. Bandages were all she asked from me. From a hill in our parish territory near Piedad’s house you can see across the Rio Grande to the hotels, hospitals and orderly streets of Laredo, Texas. It is surreal that so close to Nuevo Laredo there is peace and prosperity, but God is here, too, and amid the suffering, fear and injustice live thousands of beautiful children of God.
The service-adventure is nonstop. Among a hundred other tasks our team performed on a recent day, we met with a family that brought in a severed foot to be blessed. They intuited, I suppose, that the body is holy and even a surgically detached foot deserves a blessing before burial. What respect for life; what irony. Minutes later a 40-year-old woman came in for counseling. She was ready for help regarding the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
That afternoon I visited a young criminal who had seen more violence than many weary war veterans. Bedridden now, he had signed up with the cartel at the age of 15. At 17 he was in a gun battle with the military and was shot in the back.
A bullet in the back is a bad thing. Usually. But Pablo recognized it as a mercy bullet. The only way his bosses would let him out of the gang alive would be if he suffered a debilitating injury, yet he knew he was so far from God’s face that he had no right to ask for miracles. He got one anyway: the bullet that paralyzed him. As I tell many of the penitents who come by scores to confession every week, God wants to forgive you, more even than you want forgiveness. God wants to save you, more even than you want to be saved. So Pablo, lying on his stomach, was reconciled to God and the Church and humanity through a beautiful confession.
“The greater the sinner, the greater right he has to my mercy,” said Jesus to Saint Faustina in one of his heavenly visits to her Polish convent. It is true; I am an eye witness.
And there are lessons in charity. Little Luis Alberto: What an honor to know him; what an honor to serve him. He was 8 years old when his older sister started convulsing. Quickly his dad put everybody in their old minivan and sped toward the hospital, distant from these recently settled barrios. Everyone in the family feared for her life, and she was barely breathing when Luis Alberto started praying out loud, even shouting his prayer: “Father, take me. Take me instead of her. Please!”
Dad ran a red light. Luis Alberto died instantly in the crash. His sister is a catechist now in the parish, and Luis is one of our saints.
He is not atypical. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and my parishioners in their plywood shacks, some with dirt floors, saw the ruin on TV and rose to the Gospel challenge. We gave our entire Sunday collection to our needy neighbors to the north, and the collection that Sunday was a third larger than normal. It was bigger than the Christmas collection, a whopping 6,000 pesos (roughly $450). Factory workers in the parish make $2 an hour, so this was no mean gift. Pope Francis warns about the globalization of indifference and challenges us to a contrary globalization of mercy. In the midst of war and an asphyxiating economy, these holy folks give to Darfur, Haiti and even Japan.
When the first Franciscan missionaries came to America, they shocked the Aztecs with Jesus. The natives were used to gods that cried for human blood, gods that demanded human sacrifice; here was a God who gave His own blood, who sacrificed Himself to give life to humans. This Christian shock-love continues to be the best remedy for the cynicism of modern pagans.
Leti demonstrated this. She is the head of my confirmation catechists. An extortionist called her with frighteningly detailed information about her daughter’s whereabouts and habits. He threatened terrible things unless she complied with his demands for money. Leti gave him a lesson in the way of love that has become a lesson for me and for many. She told him she did not have the thousands of pesos he demanded but she loved him “with the love of Christ” and wished only good for him. After several attempts to terrorize her, he admitted his malice and ended asking for her prayers. Leti loved shockingly, and love won.
Here in Nuevo Laredo, here in a world with no embalming and no air-conditioning, where evil wears no mask, one can see clearly that decisions have consequences. I think of Roberto and Pepe. Their families live one block apart. Roberto was an altar boy and so was Pepe. Roberto is dead, and Pepe is in the seminary. Decisions have consequences: Roberto, at age 16, decided to make easy money with the gangs. Soon he was in a battle in Monterrey. After a victorious encounter with rivals, he left his armored SUV to check that there were no survivors from the enemy gang. He was shot in the neck by a wounded foe pretending to be dead.
Pepe was an altar boy at the same altar as Roberto. His family has similar economic trials, but instead of coveting a car, Pepe decided to serve and love for a living. He said yes to a call to the priesthood, and when we see him on weekends he has an unfailing, sunshine smile. Love makes a difference. Christ’s way works.
Blessed John Henry Newman put it well: “If you feed the hungry, tend the sick, succor the distressed; if you bear with the froward, submit to insult, endure ingratitude, render good for evil, you are, as by a Divine Charm, getting power over the world and rising among the creatures. God has established this law.”
Why are we here? We are here because we love these people, and we want to charm the ones who need charming. We are here for the salvation of souls. Giving away the gifts that God gives me is also simply a joy. On July 13, 2012, for example, God put me in the right place at the right time. My ’92 Ford pickup was due for an oil change. The mechanic was Catholic but not a practicing one, so as he worked, I worked, reminding him that missing Mass is no insignificant indifference. In effect, when we miss Mass we tell Our Lord we don’t need His Word. He is not our way; we have found another way. When we miss Mass we reject His loving presence in the Eucharist; we tell Him we would rather be content with His things than with His person.
As I evangelized, up drove a shiny SUV filled with teenage cartel members. My mechanic had friends in low places, apparently. They conversed, and as they drove away I saw the driver give the thumbs-down signal. Somebody was condemned to die. I questioned the mechanic and learned he had been beaten and robbed by five young men who were independent thugs, something highly penalized by the cartel, which wants to be the only dark force in town. My mechanic had described the beating to his gang friends and asked for retribution. Immediately the death of the five upstart thieves was decided upon.
But God had the last word. Before I left the mechanic’s roofless shop, I had convinced him murder was incommensurate with their crime. After all, even though they had stolen his stereo, he had recovered his car. He listened and acted. The sentence was commuted in time, and the five hoodlums were allowed to disappear into exile. They swam the Rio Grande that very day.
“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” said Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic writer. But pushing hard isn’t an eye for an eye. Christ taught us to push harder than that: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Live the Beatitudes. Love with Cross-love. Paradoxically, although Christ-love creates and endures, although it builds hospitals and happy homes, it is also mysteriously fragile. Yet again, paradoxically, there is strength in fragility. As G.K. Chesterton noted: Birds are fragile, yet they fly. Rocks fall.
Christ was fragile in the crib and on the cross. But look what eternal and temporal good He does. We fly with Him when we decide to trust Him. Saint Claude de la Colombière said, “Thou, then, shall be my strength, O my God! Thou dost promise me that this will be in proportion to my confidence.”
Our fragile missionary team strives to “push hard” with the countercultural, disinterested love that Jesus teaches. When He was executed, one of His last actions was to offer salvation to two criminals. One accepted and one didn’t, but He wanted both rebels with Him for eternity. In this mission we keep offering the choice, striving to make Christ appealing. Some think martial law and the presence of the military can bring peace to Nuevo Laredo. We bet our lives that there is another way, a way that works. Christ gave His life that even the most violent villain might be redeemed if he so chooses. We, too, want the salvation of all, even the enemies of society.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” said Chesterton. “It has been found difficult and left untried.” How often we become discouraged at ourselves or at the incoherent Christians around us. Real Christianity has too often been left untried by card-carrying Catholics. But the Christian experiment has, in fact, been corroborated in many places in every age. The saints and their prodigious legacies are witnesses to that. Love does work.
The challenge is to try the authentic Christian experiment again and again in your home and your workplace. “Love your enemies,” said Jesus. This is not an absurd, starry ideal; it is a law that works in Seattle and Omaha. Love makes you more yourself; it makes you free and happy. Pope Francis writes of “a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others.” Eureka!
We insist on calling our race homo sapiens. Statistically or demographically, this intelligence is hard to demonstrate. Perhaps homo sapiens is a prospective name, a name that expresses what we should shoot for. If that is the case, then I propose a new prospective name for humanity. Let us call ourselves homo amans: loving man. God is love, we learned in catechism class. What we didn’t quite learn is that to the extent that we are like Him we are like ourselves. We were made by love in order to receive love and give love.
A charming image comes from the fourth century doctor of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom: Returning to their homes from the holy Mass, the Christians exhale a breath of love, and they are fearful to the demons.
Love-dragons: That is who we are when we take the risk and love; this is what we become when we decide to live the Christian experiment.
Antonio Anderson (“Tony” in his PLS days at Notre Dame) was ordained in 1991 by Blessed John Paul II for the Society of Our Lady (SOLT). For the last 13 years he has served a parish of 90,000 on the impoverished outskirts of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. His short monograph, “A Portrait of the Priesthood,” will soon be available in both English and Spanish.