We who live in El Paso often think of ourselves as living off in a forgotten corner of the world. We even wonder at times if our fellow Texans know that we are part of our State.
I have just returned from the city that you might call the Capital of the Catholic Church, the city of Rome. It is a long journey crossing 8 time zones. The trip is a Pilgrimage required for Bishops which takes place about every 8 years. The official short name is “Ad Limina Apostolorum”, a Latin title which translates, “To the Threshold of the Apostles”. We go as part of regions of the Church in the U.S. Our region is made up of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. We are made up of 18 Dioceses. 26 Bishops were part of our group. We are one of the largest regions in terms of the number of Dioceses that make us up.
The trip is intended primarily as a spiritual journey to strengthen the connections with our roots as a Church and particularly to strengthen our mission as Bishops to continue the work that Jesus first entrusted to the Apostles to preach, teach and baptize in his name. To do this we go to the place where the two primary foundation stones upon which Jesus built his Church, St.s Peter and Paul, gave the ultimate witness.
We concretize our closeness to that foundation by praying and celebrating Mass together at the four major Basilica churches of Rome: St. John Lateran, which is the Pope’s Cathedral; St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the place where St. Peter is buried; St. Paul’s Outside the Walls; where St. Paul is buried; and St. Mary Major, the earliest Church in Rome that was dedicated to Mary.
Of course, an unforgettable highlight of the trip is the audience with the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis. Even a brief encounter with him would have been a memorable treat. Jesus promised that through the ministry of Peter and his successors the Church would always have the assurance of the Holy Spirit to guide her and keep her faithful. The Pope represents the unity that all the Bishops have as they carry on the work of Christ. Through them the whole Church, despite the weakness and sinfulness of all the members, has the promise that Christ will be present and at work until the end of time.
Well, at our audience the Pope didn’t limit himself to only a meet and greet. After graciously greeting and speaking to a group of priests and seminarians who joined us, he sat down and visited with us for more than 2½ hours! There were no formal presentations. Each Bishop had presented an in depth report on the life of the Church in our dioceses some six months ago. The Holy Father just invited us to raise to him anything we wished to inform him about or to ask. We had a far ranging discussion of trends that we see in our region and in the Church as a whole. The Pope shared concerns and priorities of his.
One thing that came across clearly, and this may sound strange, is how deeply Catholic he is! Have you ever heard the rejoinder,”Is the Pope Catholic?”, when a person is wondering if something is true, Well, in this time of turmoil and disappointment and rejection of practically every institution, I am happy to reassure you that the answer to the question about the Pope is, “YES”! Yes, he is Catholic to the core of his being!
Listening to him speak his deep love of Christ, his utter fidelity to Christ’s teaching whether those teachings be in season or out, and his profound desire to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit came through loud and clear. What I think is difficult for many who are influenced by the secular spirit of our age is that a man such as this, so trusting in the power of the Spirit, is not afraid to open the door to a discussion of difficult questions. It is not a matter of having a prior agenda. It is a search for answers that often lie beyond what we feeble humans can conceive. Don’t worry, the Church has a good captain at the helm!
The Pope had a couple real surprises in store for me personally in our encounter. When Fr. Ben Flores, the Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish and our Vicar General, and I introduced ourselves to him he looked at me and exclaimed, “¡Este es el obispo de mucha fama!” “This is the very famous Bishop!” Apparently he had heard about our challenges here on the border and recognized me as the Bishop of this place. I received his greeting as a word of encouragement to all of our community for the powerful witness we have given in our welcome of people in need at our border in fidelity to the Gospel.
Later in our conversation with the Holy Father as a group I took the opportunity to remind him of the events that took place in El Paso on August 3rd. I told him that a man filled with hate had come from far away with the desire to shoot as many people of Mexican origin and immigrants as he could. I explained that 22 were killed and another 26 were wounded. I specifically mentioned Willie (Memo) Garcia who continues to fight for his life in Intensive Care.
My request of the Pope was that he would send me back to my Diocese with assurances of his blessings and prayers, especially for the victims and their families. I expected him to simply give me that assurance. Instead he asked me, “”How many rosaries would you like?” I was shocked by the question and unsure of how to answer. How many could I ask of the Holy Father? I blurted out, “20”. He summoned an aide and whispered to him some instructions. Soon a large white bag was brought in to the Pope. It was the rosaries!
At the conclusion of our audience, Pope Francis beckoned me to come forward and handed me a bag heavy with rosaries. Not 20, but 50! I can hardly wait to offer these signs of the Holy Father’s closeness and blessings to the families of those whose lives were so drastically changed on that awful day!
Yes, at times we in El Paso and all of west Texas may feel as though we are in a forgotten and unappreciated corner of the world. Some people may not give us our due. However that may be, that is not the case with the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis! We are very much in his heart.
It’s good to be home!
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz