During the Feast of All Souls, I had the great privilege of concelebrating Mass at the border between Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and Anapra in New Mexico. Each year Mass is offered for all those who have died trying to cross the border.
The Mass is celebrated with half the altar on the United States side of the border and the other half on the Mexico side. An 18-foot-high fence goes across the border. It runs all across the Rio Grande River. Border Patrol trucks and officers were everywhere.
White crosses with the names of people who have died trying to cross the border were all along the fence.
Hundreds of people lined both sides of the border. Renato Ascensio Leon, the archbishop of Ciudad Juarez, and about 20 priests were on the Mexico side. On the U.S. side were Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, the bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Armando Ochoa, the bishop of El Paso, Texas, and about 15 priests.
I could not stop staring at the fence with the altar on either side. Here we were gathered as one Body of Christ divided into two. While the Eucharist speaks of our oneness in Christ, of the One Bread and the One Cup, of inclusion, the fence speaks of the opposite — division and separation and exclusion.
The entrance procession began with people on both sides of the fence carrying symbols from crossing the border. First the Crucifix, then the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the flags of both countries and, finally, items people carry when they try to cross — water, food, shoes and a backpack. I don’t know why, but when I saw the backpack and the shoes I could not stop crying.
The Mass was bilingual with beautiful music. Someone read the first reading in Spanish from the Mexico side of the border. Then someone read in English from the U.S. side. I was continually struck by the absurdity of borders. One Body of Christ divided into two.
At the Kiss of Peace, people on both sides put their fingers through the holes in the fence to touch the fingers of their sisters and brothers on the other side. I did the same, touching the fingers of another man. I cannot describe what I experienced at that moment, perhaps the deepest longing I have ever known for justice, for peace, for unity, for acceptance.
I wanted to offer the Peace of Christ to some of the Border Patrol officers. But I was hesitant, not knowing how it would be received. Now I wish so much that I had done it.
Of course, the communion rite was also so powerful — the One Bread and the One Cup shared by fellow Catholics on both sides of a fence, a division that must break God’s heart.
After communion there was silence to honor and pray for all who have died trying to cross the border, about 5,000 in the past 15 years.
The Mass ended with the usual blessing and that great song, “Resucito,” by Kiko Arguello.
The ceremony was attended by an order of Dominican nuns on both sides of the border, dressed in the same habit. It was a powerful sight to see them talking with one another through the fence after the Mass.
All during the Mass my mind had been flooded with the faces of the undocumented people I have worked with during the 19 years that I served as a pastor — faces from St. John Vianney in Arizona and faces from Holy Redeemer in Oregon. I prayed for these people. I prayed for real and honest immigration reform in our day.
I still cannot put into words all that was in my mind and heart during that Mass, the most moving and powerful Mass I have ever been attended. The picture of one altar divided by a fence with people on both sides of that fence will be forever engraved on my mind and in my heart.
May God enlighten and inspire our elected leaders to work for true and real and honest immigration reform.
Father Corpora, CSC, who attended the Mass on Monday, November 2, 2009, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage: The Campaign to Improve Educational Opportunities for Latino Children, headquartered at Notre Dame. He is priest in residence at Dillon Hall.
Photo of crosses on the border wall at Nogales by Jonathan McIntosh.