By Brenda Nettles Riojas
MISSION, Texas — As World Youth Day kicked off in Poland today, a group of Catholic youth in Texas, some without the money to travel to Poland and others without the legal papers to travel there, got the next best thing: Pope Francis came to them via video, with a message tailored for the community there.
Why did the rural area known as Pueblo de Palmas, near Peñitas get such an honor? Why would the Holy Father send a message to the people of a rural area that some consider “insignificant”?
Three missionary sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who have been living and helping in the area for 12 years will tell you that it’s because the people of God here have a deep faith that is not daunted by poverty or other hardships they may endure.
Father Michael Montoya, a Missionary of Jesus priest, is pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Peñitas, Texas and its three missionary churches. He said the idea of connecting the youth in the area to the more global event in such a personal way started off as an idea to help the young people in one of the poorest areas in the country see how they are connected with the church and other young people from around the world.
Given the poverty levels in the community and their immigration status, it is impossible for most to travel. For those in Peñitas, explains Father Montoya, traveling from their homes to church comes with risk. Some fear that if they are pulled over for something such as a minor traffic infraction, they could be deported. Father Montoya points to what he refers to as a “military presence” in the area. There is a no shortage of local police, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, U.S. border patrol agents and National Guard patrolling the area located just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s a constant reminder to the people that something is not right. We live so close to the wall that divides families, it affects self-identity. All the images we receive from the outside are negative. It’s always connected to the border, always connected to the things we cannot do,” said Father Montoya.
Add to this the poverty and lack of basic infrastructure in some neighborhoods that do not even have a sewage system or water lines.
“There are many circumstances,” said Father Montoya “that make it difficult for the people. They think they are forgotten.”
But they are not forgotten. Today they are celebrating the Holy Father who prepared a personal message for the youth of the diocese.
“The parish of St. Anne is beyond happy. Things like this don’t happen to a place like Peñitas,” said Father Montoya. “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.”
“God has certainly worked wonders,” said Sister Carolyn Kosub, one of the three missionary sisters who arrived in the area along with Sister Emily Jocson and Sister Fatima Santiago in 2004 to help rebuild the community after it was devastated by a tornado.
A project they started in an under-served area blossomed and eventually led to the building of St. Anne Catholic Church in 2009. They never dreamed it would become a mother church of a parish four years later, or that one day, on the feast of St. Anne, the Holy Father would send a personal message to the youth of that parish.
Father Montoya says when thinking of the honor the area has received, we need to be reminded that the infant Jesus chose to be born in the small town of Bethlehem and not a city center. So, a great event can happen in an “out of the way” place.
“Not everyone can travel to Poland for World Youth Day,” said Father Montoya, “but we believe that even in our area, a profound and meaningful encounter with the world’s youth can be organized.”
“It’s a reimagining,” said Father Montoya, “of who we are. We are not defined by the border, we are defined by our culture and by our faith.”
This is truly a testament that the mercy of God knows no limits. It should also serve as a reminder to each of us that no matter where God places us, no matter where we stand in the world, we each matter and must do what we can to foster a “culture of encounter,” as Pope Francis has often said.
Father Montoya said “the mercy of God knows no limits within a church that knows no borders,” and the encounter in the rural town in Texas shows that mercy and grace can reach “even the remotest part of the world. We don’t have to be in the center of power to be recognized by the church.”
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Nettles Riojas is the editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.