Father Ronald D. Gonzales, S.J., is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, Tex., a Jesuit parish that primarily serves migrants and is located a block-and-a-half from the Mexican border. Founded in 1893, Sacred Heart offers liturgies in Spanish, the first language of most parishioners. As Pope Francis prepares to stop in Juarez on the Mexican side of the border next Wednesday, Feb. 17, Father Gonzales finds himself at ground zero of the Jesuit pope’s visit.
On Jan. 10, I interviewed Father Gonzales at the parish about his work and the pope’s visit. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
What will Pope Francis find here on the U.S.-Mexican border, where El Paso and Juarez are divided only by a chain-link fence?
He will find that he is greatly loved in this area by many people, including people distant from the church, who have persevered through violence and through poverty because of their faith in Christ. They see that this pope loves them as poor, struggling people, people who have had a hard life.
The fact that Pope Francis is coming to Juarez, considered for many years one of the most dangerous cities in the world due to the drug cartel battles, shows that his love for them is very present—that he understands them. I think his presence is like a big embrace, embracing them in their struggles and in all they’ve endured. Many people on both sides of the border have lost loved ones due to this violence that has only recently started to decrease.
What is significant for you about the pope stopping here, so close to the U.S. border, during his Mexico trip?
Originally, before his trip to the United States several months ago, Pope Francis wanted to go to Mexico first and then cross the border into the U.S.—most likely through Juarez—precisely because he wanted to show unity and solidarity with migrants by himself crossing the border physically. As I understand it, this plan fell through because the political situation in Cuba opened up and he decided to go there (rather than Mexico) right before coming to the United States. Now during this visit to Mexico, he’s making a point of going to places on the margins, and Juarez happens to be one of them. It’s his last stop. Although he’s not crossing into El Paso, Francis will be close enough to the border that his very presence will speak volumes as people cross from the United States into Mexico to see him. Even many people who stay on the U.S. side will be close enough to the border fence to look over the Rio Grande at the site where the papal mass is taking place.
A pope has never been to the U.S.-Mexico border before. So his presence here will speak volumes. His coming to Juarez is the same thing as him jumping out of his popemobile to reach a sick child or a man with tumors. I imagine people will feel the same way as that child or man with tumors: A big embrace, big love.
The Diocese of Juarez is organizing a “human fence,” comprised of volunteers from both sides of the border, to protect Francis as he travels through the city. What is the symbolism of this gesture?
They’re looking for 80,000 people, all of whom have to be trained and undergo background checks. The barrier is made up of human beings—it’s not metal, it’s not fencing, but people holding hands for protection and to provide aid to the pilgrims. It’s a more personal way of protecting him than the metal barricades they used in Philadelphia and New York.
What has been the reaction to the upcoming papal visit in your Jesuit parish, where people can literally walk from the church doors to Mexico within 12 minutes?
The reaction has been like it was when he was first elected: One of surprise. There’s excitement about him coming to an area where we already feel on the margins. As a parish, we’re on the frontier and distant from our Jesuit province headquarters in St. Louis. In some ways, this visit brings attention to our mission here on the border. We had hoped he might come visit us at Sacred Heart, and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke sent him an invitation, but we knew it would be highly unlikely that he would cross back into the United States after having just been here a few months ago. Given his one-day stay in Juarez, coming at the end of a weeklong trip in Mexico, we didn’t expect it to happen.
Catholicism seems pretty vibrant on both sides of the border here. What does the pope mean to people in El Paso?
Catholicism has been a big part of this community where we live, the Segundo Barrio, out of which El Paso grew and expanded outwards. In many ways, Catholics and non-Catholics have come to appreciate and be moved by this particular pope, whose actions go a long way toward living the Catholic teaching. Among those who have observed and listened to him, even many atheists and non-believers say they really like this pope, and there’s something that’s drawing them on some level to take a closer look at faith. And I know for a fact that others have come back to the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis.
Jesuit priests from Sacred Heart Church, including you, cross the border into Juarez regularly for ministry. What can you tell us about relationships between Catholics on both sides of the border?
For our parish, it’s very fluid. Many people come to our parish regularly, even on Sundays, from Juarez. A lot of people also come here because it’s a Jesuit parish and they find a home here. Unlike other parishes, there’s a certain Ignatian quality or spirit that seems to draw them in, including many alumni of Jesuit schools. But there are still some people who don’t realize we’re a Jesuit parish, even though they know we’ve been here forever. One person now on my finance council went to the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, and only realized when he came back home that there was a Jesuit parish one block from his father’s business.
Catholics on both sides are very similar in their vibrant practice of religious traditions, but Juarez has stronger youth groups than in El Paso. This difference shows up, for example, at Cathedral High School which the De La Salle Christian Brothers run. When I hear confessions there, I find that a lot of the students are wealthy Catholics from Juarez, and I’m very edified by their faith. There’s a depth to it that you don’t usually see in teenage boys on the U.S. side. But I think you often find that people’s faith is a bit stronger in poorer places.
What are your hopes for the pope’s time here?
I hope he’ll bring light to a place that has experienced so much darkness. Even before the cartels arrived, women were disappearing from the factories where they worked and their dead bodies were being dumped in different places. There was never any resolution to this situation before the cartels brought a new wave of dead bodies, severed heads, extortions, and all kinds of other gruesome things. Now the pope’s coming, so I hope his visit will bring a time of peace and of hope for a new Juarez.
The Society of Jesus, our religious order that includes Pope Francis, founded Sacred Heart Church in 1893 and continues to direct its outreach to the poor today with five priests on staff. What ministries does the parish currently offer?
We have adult education classes, providing people the opportunity for improvement through English as a Second Language (ESL) and GED certificates. We have citizenship classes and computer classes so people can find better jobs and opportunities. Of course, we have the St. Vincent de Paul Society that helps people with gas and electricity. We have Project Gabriel for pregnant girls who are considering abortions, to support them and give them other options. We also have an on-site restaurant, La Tilma, that provides good food and decent prices for our people, as well as jobs for people who want to work in the restaurant industry.
All of that is in addition to regular parish ministries like liturgies, baptisms, confirmations, first Communions and so on. As a hub parish, we help other parishes in the area that are short on priests, and we get plenty of sick calls because we’re one of the few places with more than one priest. One of our priests is chaplain for the Las Alas community in Juarez, working directly with the poor and sick in Mexico, where he visits people in prisons and helps with a food bank among other things.
What have been some highlights of your ministry here on the border?
One consolation is the large number of dedicated parishioners who love this church, love the Jesuits, love their faith and who give of their time generously. Another highlight has been the new people who have come on board because they have discovered a vibrant faith community that they want to be a part of. These are the people now on my parish council and finance council.
What have been some challenges for you?
There’s a lot of to do and we still lack the large number of volunteers we need to do big things like parish festivals. Like many parishes, it’s always the same few people who do the majority of the work. So the challenge and hope is to get more vibrant volunteers with skin in the game. A lot of our parishioners are getting older, and while they’re still dedicated, we need people to follow in their footsteps.
As a fellow Jesuit, if you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Sacred Heart parish, what would it be?
Come and see!
In your view, what do people here on the border most need right now?
They need good jobs and fair wages so they can etch out a living and care for their families.
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Having been here on the border, my favorite is Mt 25:31-46: “When did we see you hungry? When did we see you naked and in prison? Whatever you’ve done to the least of my children, you’ve done to me.” I’ve come to see this passage as a litmus test for crossing into eternal life. The question isn’t going to be: “Hey, how was your 401k for 2015-2016?” Or: “How many degrees did you amass? What part of town did you live in?” Rather, this passage shows us that Jesus is going to ask: “Did you allow me to love others through you? Did you use your gifts and talents to leave the world a little bit better than when you found it?”
This particular passage puts faith into action, “reaching out to the margins” as Pope Francis puts it. Being here on the border allows us to do some of that work on the margins. In El Paso, you can add to Jesus’ list: “When did I see you an immigrant and not welcome you?” We’ve received so many immigrants here and we’ve had to find places to show hospitality while they get processed and connect with their families or make other arrangements. The border patrol has even contacted the churches for help. And the Diocese of El Paso has managed to find welcoming centers at places like St. Ignatius Church and Nazareth Hall.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
In spite of—or because of—my own brokenness and sinfulness, God can still work through me to make something beautiful. Because of my own Jesuit vocation, I’ve been stretched beyond my imagination. Our Ignatian spirituality of “finding God in all things” means that, even in things we normally wouldn’t choose for ourselves, God can in fact make us more generous, loving, and grateful people.
Any final thoughts?
The pope’s visit is going to be crazy, that’s all I know. Knowing that Juarez has been a dangerous city for many years, people are still going to cross from the United States into Mexico now that he’s coming. They’re not afraid. There are going to be a lot of people there.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.