As millions of youth from around the globe gather July 26 for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, a group of youth in a poor and suffering part of Texas will have the pope come to them—via video, at least.
Young Catholics in the rural Texas area known as Penitas, a faith community of about 10,000, will gather at St. Anne Catholic Church to hear the pope's message sent specifically to them.
Why is Penitas special enough to get a tailored message from the pope?
"The pope is sending a message to us! I think that is proof enough, that the love of the church for our poor people is really palpable, it's real," said Father Michael Montoya, pastor of St. Anne's Parish in Penitas.
He noted at a news conference on July 19 announcing the event that there is a lot of poverty in the area. Parts of a nearby rural community, known as Pueblo de Palmas, lack basic infrastructure, such as running water and a sewage system.
Given the poverty levels in the community and lack of legal immigration status for many residents, it is impossible for many of the youth of the area to travel — to Poland or anywhere else. But that's precisely why the pope thinks it's important to let them know that they are connected to the church and to other youth from around the world.
At the news conference announcing the event, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville said the message will be the pope's "way of being two places at the same time because he will be in Poland, in Krakow, for the world celebration where millions will be gathered with him, but in a certain way, giving a special sign that he's always mindful of those who can't make a trip. He has taken the time to really prepare a local message for the youth of this diocese."
He added that it's also a special "effort to offer a word of encouragement and a word of consolation."
"The parish of St. Anne is beyond happy at this particular point," Father Montoya said. "Things like this don't happen to places like Penitas."
Some in the area think that they are forgotten, Father Montoya said. And yet, "the faith life is vibrant, the people are generous and the people are hardworking," he added.
Residents of the area live with a daily fear that something as minor as a traffic stop will result in deportation. Presence of police, sheriff's deputies, state troopers and Border Patrol agents lend to the feeling of "military presence" in the community, said Father Montoya.
"The idea of doing this in Penitas is precisely to strengthen that message of the church, that the mercy of God knows no borders, knows no limits, that it reaches even the most remote parts of the earth," Father Montoya said. "We don't have to be at the center of power to be recognized by the church."
Besides the video presence of the pope, youth who attend the event will in the presence of more than 40 first-class relics of different saints and blesseds, including a relic of Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio, who will be canonized Oct. 16. The relic, which was present at the news conference, was provided by the Diocese of Zamora in Michoacan, Mexico, the home diocese of Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio.
Blessed Jose was martyred in 1928 during the Cristero wars—a rebellion against anti-Catholic, secularist policies of the Mexican government—for refusing to renounce his faith. At the July 26 gathering in Penitas, the future saint will be introduced as a model for the young people of the area.