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Borderline faith: Mass on the Rio Grande

Fr. Joe Corpora | Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Monday, Nov. 2, the Feast of All Souls, I had the great privilege of concelebrating Mass at the border between Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and Anapra in New Mexico. It was the most moving and powerful Mass of my life. Each year Mass is celebrated at the border, offered for all those who have died trying to cross the border. I began crying before the Mass started and cried off and on during the entire Mass. 

The Mass is celebrated with half the altar on the United States side of the border and the other half on the Mexico side. There is an 18-foot high fence that runs along the border, along the Rio Grande River. 

As I got close to where the Mass was to be celebrated, I began to see Border Patrol trucks and officers everywhere, stationed every 20 feet or so. All along the fence there were white crosses with the names of people who have died trying to cross the border. 

On both sides of the border were gathered hundreds of people. I could not help but notice immediately an order of Dominican nuns standing close to one another on both sides of the border, dressed in the same habit. On the Mexican side stood Archbishop Renato, the Archbishop of Ciudad Juarez, and about 20 priests. On the U.S. side stood Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, the Bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico and Bishop Armando Ochoa, the Bishop of El Paso, Texas, along with about 15 priests. 

I could not stop staring at the fence with the altar on either side. Here we gathered as one Body of Christ divided in two. While the Eucharist speaks of our oneness in Christ, of the One Bread and the One Cup … the fence speaks of the opposite — division and separation and exclusion. 

The entrance procession began with people on both sides of the fence carrying symbols from crossing the border. First the Crucifix, then the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, then the flags of both countries and finally items that people carry when they try to cross — water, food, shoes and a backpack. I don’t know why, but when I saw the backpack and the shoes I could not stop crying. 

The Mass was bilingual with beautiful music. Someone read the first reading in Spanish from the Mexico side of the border. Then someone read the second reading in English from the U.S. side. I kept being struck by the absurdity of the fence at this liturgy. One Body of Christ divided into two. 

The Eucharistic Prayer was so powerful. The Bishops from both sides shared this prayer. Another powerful sight — bishops, the successors of the first community of 12 Apostles — on both sides of the border. 

At the Kiss of Peace, I wept as people on both sides of the fence put their fingers through the fence’s holes to touch the fingers of their sisters and brothers on the other side. I put my fingers through and touched the fingers of someone on the Mexico side. I cannot describe what I experienced at that moment, perhaps the deepest longing I have ever known for justice, for peace, for unity, for acceptance. 

I wanted to offer the Peace of Christ to some of the Border Patrol officers. But I was hesitant, not knowing how it would be received. Now I wish so much that I had done it. 

Of course, the communion rite was also so powerful — the One Bread and the One Cup shared by fellow Catholics on both sides of a fence. After communion there was silence to honor and pray for all who have died trying to cross the border, about 5,000 in the past 15 years. The Mass ended with the usual blessing and the great song “Resucitó” by Kiko Arguello. 

All during the Mass my mind was flooded with the faces of undocumented people that I have worked with during the nineteen years that I served as pastor — faces from St. John Vianney in Arizona and faces from Holy Redeemer in Oregon. I prayed for these people. 

There is still so much more in my mind and heart that I cannot put into words. This was the most powerful Mass that I have ever attended in all my life. The picture of one altar divided by a fence with people on both sides will be forever engraved on my mind and in my heart. 

May God enlighten and inspire our elected leaders to work for true and real and honest immigration reform.


This week’s Faith Point was written by Fr. Joe Corpora. Fr. Joe works for ACE in the Institute for Educational Initiatives. He resides in Cavanaugh Hall. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.