As priests from all over the world gather with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome this week to officially close the Year of the Priest, Columban Fr. Kevin Mullins reflects with gratitude on his own ministry among people in a violence-scarred community, Juarez, Mexico.
Over the last seven years in the parish of Corpus Christi, a “Mission Group” of between 50 to 80 people periodically surged onto the dusty streets of their neighborhoods to pray, preach and sing aloud, encouraging their neighbors to participate more actively in their Catholic faith community.
“At times we have been rained out and scattered by electrical storms and flash-flooding, baked by the heat, blown about by the high-intensity winds and the resulting dust clouds of this time of year,” Father Kevin Mullins wrote recently. “In short, it hasn’t been the sort of activity you’d recommend for the faint-hearted!”
Responding to the increasing drug-related violence and enormous loss of life in the city of Juarez over the years, Fr. Mullins and the Mission Group organized and celebrated open-air Masses for Peace in a major traffic circle at the entrance to the district.
The response from the public has been encouraging.
Many families gather every Tuesday evening for the celebration of the Eucharist, frequently with processions, and highlight the shared need and desire for peace in Ciudad Juarez.
“The traffic circle is situated close to checkpoints manned by members of the Mexican Armed Forces,” Fr. Mullins continued, “and as yet we have only received positive support from them. Indeed, some of our parishioners come from the same southern Mexican states as the soldiers, so fraternization is common.”
Fr. Istibal Valenzuela, the pastor from the neighboring parish of San Marcos, and his parishioners have also been supportive and regularly participate in the Masses for Peace in a welcome gesture of inter-parish unity.
News camera crews also arrived from a variety of stations and organizations to report on “our humble peace initiative,” as Fr. Mullins describes it. “One crew even confided to me that after covering a recent story about a decapitation,” he said, “they were pleased to be able to end their news broadcast on a positive note: our Mass for Peace.”
The number of murdered and mangled bodies appearing in and around the city since the early 1990s, evidence of wars between drug cartels and other criminal activities, has shot up over the past few months. Police found 163 murder victims in the city during the month of February of 2010, 203 in March, 240 in April and another 253 murders took place in May, 2010, according to local sources.
The parish of Corpus Christ is in Rancho Anapra, a fast-growing settlement of roughly 30,000 people on the remote outskirts of Juarez next to the U.S.-Mexican border fence.
Fr. Mullins concluded, “The people of Rancho Anapra are indeed a most collaborative and wonderful group of people. In these days, as the Year of the Priest is draws to a close, I can certainly attest to the blessing that it is to be called to live as a Columban Missionary priest in the Catholic Church.“