Some years ago, on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, I had the great privilege of concelebrating Mass at the US/Mexico border between Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and El Paso in the United States. It was one of the most moving and powerful Masses of my life. Each year Mass is celebrated on the border in honor of all those who have died trying to cross it. I began crying before the Mass started and cried off and on during the entire Mass.
As we got close to where the Mass was to be celebrated, we began to see Border Patrol trucks and officers everywhere.
The Mass is celebrated with half the altar on the United States side of the border and the other half of the altar on the Mexico side of the border. An 18-foot-high fence along the Rio Grande marks the border in this part of Texas, so the two “halves” of the altar are separated by this physical barrier as well as the jurisdictional one. All along the fence, white crosses displayed the names of people who have died trying to cross the border.
In addition to the Border Patrol officers stationed every 20 feet or so, the Mass was attended by hundreds of people both in Mexico and the United States. On the Mexico side, the Mass was led by Rev. Renato Ascension León, Bishop Emeritus of Ciudad Juarez, and about 20 priests. On the US side, Bishops Ricardo Ramirez (emeritus of Las Cruces, New Mexico) and Armando Ochoa (of Fresno, and formerly of El Paso) officiated alongside about 15 priests.
I could not stop staring at the fence with the altar on both sides. Here we were, gathered as one Body of Christ, yet divided into two by a fence. 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 the typical symbols of an entrance procession — first the Crucifix and then the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Following were the flags of both countries and then items that 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. The first reading was read in Spanish by someone from the Mexico side of the border, then the second reading was read in English by someone from the US side. I was struck over and over by the absurdity of borders, of one Body of Christ divided into two.
Photo via Bill Lawson/Shutterstock
Bishop Ramirez preached a great bilingual homily, and the Eucharistic Prayer was particularly powerful. The bishops from both sides shared the prayer, creating another powerful sight — Bishops, the Successors of the Apostles on both sides of the border, united in the Eucharist, divided by a fence.
At the Kiss of Peace, I wept as people on both sides of the fence put their fingers through the holes in the fence to touch the fingers of their sisters and brothers on the other side. I cannot describe what I experienced at the moment that I joined them. It was perhaps the deepest longing I have ever known for justice, for peace, for unity, for acceptance, for inclusion.
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 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 people in the past 15 years.
The Mass ended with the usual blessing and we all sang the great Easter hymn “Resucitó” by Kiko Arguello. After the Mass, I spotted another powerful sight, as two groups of Dominican nuns, both dressed in the same habit, approached each other from the two sides of the border and spoke through the fence.
My mind was flooded throughout the mass with the faces of undocumented people that 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 pray for this now.
Again, I want to say that this was one of the most powerful Masses that I have ever attended in all my life. Seeing one altar divided by a fence with the People of God on both sides — people for whom Jesus gave his life — will be forever engraved on my mind and in my heart.
Concelebrating this Mass reminded me so powerfully that immigration is about people. People. Families. Children. Siblings. Parents. People. If we all recognized our common need for the mercy of God and saw that mercy is at the heart of the world, I believe that we would all work toward immigration reform. Borders would be less important and inclusion would become more a way of life, a way of acting, a way of being.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., is the Director of University-School Partnerships within Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, the associate director of pastoral care for students in Campus Ministry, and a priest-in-residence in Dillon Hall. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy and his book of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God, was published last spring by Corby Books.