I had been in Britain for 18 months doing mission appeals and was on my way back to Chile where I had been working for the previous 17 years. Columban Frs. Arturo Aguilar and Bill Morton invited me to stop off in El Paso where they were stationed.
While they lived and worked in El Paso, Fr. Bill was also looking for an opportunity to work with poor families across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Through a Mexican priest Fr. Bill had entered into a working relationship with residents of Rancho Anapra, a poor suburb on the northwest edge of Ciudad Juárez. Fr. Bill had devised a project to help home owners with roofing and sanitary facilities. Part of my visit to El Paso was a trip across the border to Rancho Anapra.
Frs. Bill and Arturo invited me to stay, but I returned to Chile where I continued to work for two more years. However I could not get Rancho Anapra out of my mind.
So, how did you resolve that?
I emailed the Society’s headquarters requesting an appointment to the U.S. so that I might work in Rancho Anapra. My initial request was turned down, but I was asked to present the reasons why I had discerned that this might be my future as a Columban missionary. I did this and soon after was appointed to the U.S. and then to El Paso.
Following negotiation with the bishop of Ciudad Juárez, Rancho Anapra was made a parish, and I was appointed parish priest. Two other Columbans, Frs. Bill and John, were also appointed to the parish. And so we began our ministry here with about 35 Catholics coming to Sunday Mass. There were nearly 20,000 residents within the jurisdiction of our new parish and most were Catholics, so clearly we had much to do to help them feel that they belonged to the Church.
Could you say something about your dreams for what was then a new parish?
We realized that we were working with a stable, poor and marginalized population. Even now the main ring road of the city excludes our small suburb from the urban sprawl of the city, and this road was only completed a few years ago. We did not see ourselves as saviors or problem solvers. Rather we set out to help Catholics feel that this Church is theirs; we aimed to help them feel that they belonged; we wanted their belonging to the Church to be a life giving experience for them— joyous and empowering.
I have seen that you now have hundreds participating in the life of this parish. Have you found support from local Church leadership for your ministry?
I always go to the weekly priests’ meetings, and I feel that we understand and appreciate each other. Our bishop seemed a little aloof when I first came but, in recent years, he has become more hands on and sensitive pastorally.
We also feel significant support from the national Church leadership, especially since the Latin American Bishops’ meeting in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. A couple of years ago, the Mexican Bishops issued a statement titled, “May Mexico Achieve Life with Dignity in Christ Our Peace.” It is a long pastoral statement, based largely on the conclusions of the Aparecida meeting, and aims to encourage and inspire the local Church at grassroots level. I found a brief section on parish life most affirming.
Would you like to highlight some of the points the bishops make in their statement?
Yes, I will touch on just a few that are taken from section 197 of the Bishops’ statement. The following points (not a full translation of the text) have inspired and continue to inspire me in my commitment in this parish. Community life is where people shape and strengthen the social fabric—the sense of belonging.
We [the Catholic Bishops of Mexico] are committed to renewing our parishes, making them a network of groups and communities whose members share their lives as disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. The bread of the Word and of the Eucharist and the service of charity urges parish community members to achieve reconciliation and justice for the life of the world.
We are committed to making the communal aspect of parish life more dynamic so that, in the midst of a fragmented society, the parish might provide opportunities for strengthening community life, and so help the community rediscover the security necessary for living together in peace.
We are committed to making all parishes a place and sign of reconciliation, which is the best antidote for the poison of hate and the desire for revenge.
We urge the small communities and groups that constitute our parishes to contribute to the recovery of communal spaces and to develop projects that strengthen the social fabric.
What have you found in this parish that nourishes your own life?
I have seen so much drug related violence and killing and yet families seem to be so resilient. It’s as if they grieve “on the run.” They quickly get back into life with a dogged determination. They do not let violence perpetrated by others destroy their lives. It seems that everyone knows about the violence in Ciudad Juárez but I see and hear the untold story of creativity, commitment to family, to work and to parish.
The rhythm of parish life seems to support families in their daily lives. It is as if the relentless progress of the liturgical calendar, with its seasons and cycles, supports and steadies people as they take on the stuff of their lives.
I have found that men, women and youth want to participate; they want to do things together; they are also ready to try new things. We get on well. I feel easy with them and them with me. Someone said to me recently, “You are not a bossy priest; you enjoy us.”
They can also laugh in the midst of tragedy and at times show a rather dark humor, which I enjoy. Even though we do experience fear and see our hands trembling after being close to dangerous violence, we then find a way to joke and laugh about it. It’s inexpensive therapy, I guess.
To sum up—I feel so accepted here, by the eight Columbans with whom I have shared this mission over the past eleven years, by my neighbors, by the parish community, by fellow diocesan priests, by the bishop. I could not want for a better place to be a missionary priest.
Originally appeared in the March/April 2013 Columban Mission Magazine.