Last weekend was a particularly difficult one for many families in Ciudad Juarez. Forty people were executed, including 20 young men in the neighboring parish of Santa Cecilia alone.
After three years of exposure to the vagaries of the so-called Drug War, the inhabitants of this city have become almost jaded by the victim count and the horrific forms of death. There have been shootings, burnings, decapitations, stranglings, dismemberment and impaling to name but a few. These horrors are being meted out to the victims in all parts of the city.
I had chatted briefly with Fr. Aurelio, the parish priest of Santa Cecilia, and after some initial hesitation decided to drive across with Leo, our full time parish worker. I wanted to offer our services to help with the “backlog” of funerals.
Seven of his parishioners had been executed during a friendly football game and the distraught families had received visits from Fr. Aurelio in order to make the appropriate arrangements.
I was swiftly invited to help out with a funeral Mass the following day. As Mass was about to start we discovered that instead of one body, one coffin to be prayed over, four coffins arrived with their grieving families.
The church was packed with family and friends. The sound of the sobbing and wailing always make a deep impression on me, in spite of my 33 years in ministry and my familiarity with these tragic scenes.
I was doubly shocked to know that I was expected also to preach! After my initial doubts I prayed to the Holy Spirit to give me strength, the right words of consolation and hope, and then launched forth! In these years we have buried so many that my desire to accompany the families far outweighed my fears of preaching inadequetely.
I was struck by two moments of symbolism and grace. Fr Aurelio incensed the coffins and I blessed them with the holy water. Over each coffin he held the smoking thirible. A large column of fragrant smoke rose directly into the sunny reflection from the window. I was reminded of the “prayers of the Saints” rising with the incense about which the evangelist speaks so eloquently in Apocalypse 5. Our prayers accompanied this simple yet dramatic symbolism that the Lord has received the souls of so many tormented folk, who die in fearful ways in Ciudad Jaurez, into His Kingdom of peace and light.
There were also many women, wives, girlfriends, sons and grandmothers who were simply unable to stand and were being rocked in the loving embrace of their family members. At the sign of peacec scores of people began to form spontaneous lines and to approach the particularly distraught family members, whilst gently and lovingly touching their heads, arms or hands. There was little we could or wanted to say, yet this simple and gentle gesture was somehow able communicate the love, concern and respect we and they all felt for the bereaved.
Last year approximately 3,200 people, mainly young people, were executed in Ciudad Juarez. Already the local university is predicting a death toll of more than 5000 for 2011. We pray that their calculations are seriously flawed and that peace is on the horizon. But I fear not!
Whatever good and evil come our way this year, I will always remember the tender and gentle ways in which our loving God is able to comfort the bereaved through the touch of friends and strangers.
Peace be to you all and please pray for the noble people of Mexico.
Fr. Kev Mullins