Over one hundred guests heard languages from all over the world in the early evening breezes, transforming the outdoor Mass in El Paso, Texas, into a Pentecost-like event. The wind made the paper flags of different countries ripple loudly over the crowd, and the flames of the altar candles fluttered at the new Columban Mission Center, dedicated October 8, 2010.
Priests and lay missionaries of the Missionary Society of St. Columban and their supporters announced the Word of God and made their prayers in their native tongues—Chinese, Fijian, Tagalog, Spanish—a sign of the cultural diversity of the universal Church. Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of El Paso presided at the celebration and blessed the Columban Mission Center with holy water. He highlighted in his sermon the rich contribution the Columban Fathers make to the life of the local Church by their Border Ministries and, specifically, by establishing this facility.
“Everyone is called to the banquet,” the Bishop reminded the assembly, recalling Jesus’ parable about those invited to the wedding feast, from the day’s Gospel. “No one is excluded. Jesus invites us all to the feast, and it is the mission of the Church to announce this message. It is the mission that the Columban Fathers live out by establishing this remarkable Mission Center.”
Volunteers from the nearby Annunciation House, which provides food and shelter to refugees and migrants, and other young adults helped out with many aspects of the event—leading the music (both the liturgical choir and the classical music choir that entertained the gathering afterwards), reading aloud the Mass readings and prayers of the faithful, distributing communion, serving the food and generally cleaning up after people began to go home. The Sisters of Charity, who have worked alongside the Columbans in Juárez, Mexico, for years, helped out generously before, during and after the Mass and meal. They gave vibrant witness to their charism by their cheerful service, warm welcomes and their sharing with all the guests. Many hands, indeed, made for light work.
Many of the participants commented on the friendliness of the gathering. Although the Mass had been carefully planned over a number of weeks, it lacked stiffness or excessive formality, reflecting something of the familiar Columban characteristics of hospitality and a down-to-earth experience of community. Fr. Bill Morton, who first arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Mission Sunday, October 20, 1996, set a nice tone as the Mass was about to begin, welcoming everyone and explaining with some lighthearted remarks the basic elements of the special liturgy, encouraging people to pray the Our Father, when the time came, in their own native language—further enhancing the Spirit-filled ambience of mission to a global people.
The Columban Fathers and lay missionaries will host exposure trips at this new facility, providing experiences for groups from other regions of the United States who desire to see what life near the U.S./Mexico is like, especially for migrants and refugees. The Mission Center will provide housing and meeting spaces for such groups, which can number from a dozen to two dozen people each.
University students and parish organizations will have the opportunity to listen to the stories of many people who flee the poverty and violence in their own countries, and also see and hear how Church and human rights organizations respond to their plight, serve them, house them and accompany them through the legal processes and detention centers, court systems and working conditions. The exposure trips also permit encounters and dialogues with judges, border patrol agents and lawyers involved. Reflection and prayer over the experiences will take place within the walls of the Mission Center, with its chapel, dining area and spacious assembly hall.
“We envision many different kinds of activities for this Mission Center in the near future,” Fr. Bob Mosher, the new director of the facility, declared. “We hope to organize retreats and workshops here, for both the local communities on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, as well as for visitors. People who know of our work throughout the world and support us with their prayers and donations will also have opportunities to get to know us personally and join us for special events in the coming year in these surroundings. We want to show our appreciation to them with these occasions, as well as to offer them a chance to learn new things about the Church’s mission and the Columban way of living out that mission in particular.”
The local Columban Border Ministries team of nine people, lay missionaries and priests, from six nations was complemented by the presence of the U.S. Regional Director, Fr. Arturo Aguilar, who had traveled from Nebraska for the event, and the coordinator of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington, D.C., Ms. Amy W. Echeverría. Together with Bishop Ochoa and Mons. Arturo Bañuelos, pastor of the parish of St. Pius X, the Columbans visibly confirmed that they serve the local community closely and strongly identify with it.
The local Church was well represented at the evening’s sacred rites and festivities. The assembly revealed a cross-section of the local community—local parishes, human rights organizations, religious communities—and at one point everyone extended their hands over the heads of five local Catholics, chosen from the parish community of St. Pius X, who will soon leave for China on a Columban mission exposure trip.
The Columban Fathers organized an 18-day trip that will expose these five representatives of the local Church to the life and culture of China. “You will be observed closely,” warned one of the Chinese Catholic supporters present. He noted, during remarks after the Mass, that the Chinese government monitors the activities of religious groups within the country, especially ones with ties to the outside.
“We ask you to bless this Mission Center,” Bishop Ochoa prayed, “dedicated to the memory of St. Columban, and make fruitful the endeavors to proclaim the Good News of your Reign that will take place here, in faithfulness to the Mission entrusted to your Church by Your Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever.”
Good Evening and thank you for joining us in this special moment in Columban mission at the border.
In 1918, the Missionary Society of St. Columban was founded to go to China by Bishop Galvin. He said of this mission, “We are not here to convert the Chinese but to do God’s will”. 93 years later and in that same spirit of service to the most vulnerable, our mission has expanded to 15 countries. This mission includes 15 years of missionary service to the border communities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico which is only possible through the way you have invited and welcomed us into your homes and hearts. We are grateful to you, Bishop Ochoa, the people of the diocese of El Paso, our donors and benefactors, and all our companions on this missionary journey. Together with you, we continue to do God’s will, responding to the needs of our day as laborers in the field, building the Kingdom of God in our shared call to work lovingly and joyfully for justice, peace, and harmony with Creation.
We are an international, cross cultural mission Society that builds bridges. This celebration is a sign of that globality and our mission team here reflects the universality of the Church. Fiji, Mexico, Australia, the Philippines, Korea, Ireland and the United States are all represented. We received a special message on the occasion of this blessing from Fr. Trevor Trotter, Vicar General on behalf of Fr. Tommy Murphy, Columban Superior General and the entire General Council.
Fr. Trevor says, “Congratulations to the Columban Region of the United States on the opening of the new Mission Center in El Paso. For many years now Columban missionaries have been working in this important area of the Borderlands giving witness to the love and compassion of Jesus for the people.
We, on the General Council here in Hong Kong, are delighted that this new venture is being blessed today with a Holy Eucharist lead by Bishop Ochoa. With the help of God’s grace the Center will be an effective means of inviting people into the Mission of Jesus by being at the service of the poor and those struggling for a better life.
As you celebrate today, we are with you in spirit and pray that your efforts for mission are well rewarded and your dreams fulfilled.”
Today we celebrate and renew our missionary commitment here at the U.S.-Mexico border, a unique and holy ground where our loving God unites us despite our human poverty that separates us. We ask for the strength and courage to be witnesses of His love, breaking the structures that keep up divided. God invites all of us to the Banquet of Life just as you all have invited us into your lives and community. With this Columban Mission Center we want to facilitate your missionary experience and invite you to realize your baptismal calling to be the new evangelizers of the world not only here in El Paso but to all nations.
God is great. We give thanks for this shared journey. May God bless keep us and bless us today and always.
Fr. Arturo Aguilar, SSC
Director, U.S. Region