Why a poor rural Texas town captured the pope’s attention


Catholic youth from towns near Peñitas, Texas cheer while kicking off World Youth Day July 26, 2016. Even though the pope is in Poland, he sent a video message specifically to the group gathered in Texas, even though many from the impoverished area can’t travel. (CNS photo by Amber Donaldson)

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.”

– – –

Nettles Riojas is the editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, July 24, 2016

"Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us." -- Luke 11:3-4

“Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” — Luke 11:3-4

July 24, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Genesis 18:20-32

      Psalm 138:1-3, 6-8

      2) Colossians 2:12-14

      Gospel: Luke 11:1-13


By Jeff Hensley
Catholic News Service

I’m currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

Reading this week’s Scriptures on God’s generous dealings with his people, I can’t help but think of Lincoln and his tremendous desire to be at peace with all men.

The book is framed around the way he built his cabinet, primarily from men who had run against him for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates, from New York, Ohio and Missouri, respectively. None had respect for Lincoln when they began their cabinet positions, yet only one ended up being disloyal to him. Seward, the one who had lost the most to him, ended up as his secretary of state and perhaps his closest friend and confidant.

But Lincoln’s team-building, reconciling ways were not limited to these three. He had built relationships within his home state of Illinois, prior to his nomination, that involved reaching out and offering an olive branch to anyone who might have been estranged from him.

Throughout his political career, Lincoln continued to exercise this magnanimous wisdom sincerely and consistently.

It would seem there is no great public figure in human history who has so pervasively modeled his behavior on Jesus and his teachings.

Abraham’s bargaining for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah would have sounded reasonable to Lincoln.

Jesus’ assurance that God would grant the Holy Spirit to those who ask him — for “what father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish” — probably governed Lincoln’s relations with the many supplicants who sought favors, positions or reconciliation from him.

This man who sought to preserve the Union fought equally hard to bring reconciliation with his separated brethren, the estranged Southerners, even as the bitter Civil War came to a close. Striving for reconciliation with all parties made him a target for an assassin’s bullets.

Much good literature includes a Christ figure, and we should be able to recognize this one in our own country’s story.


Can you recognize any statesmen or stateswomen with a similar desire for reconciliation on the current political scene? Who would you name or why do you believe there is none?

‘Praying for our nation and for our God’ a reason to join thousands in Washington

A man holds a cross during the "Together 2016" event in Washington July 16. (CNS photo/Ana Franco-Guzman)

A man holds a cross during “Together 2016” July 16. (CNS photo/Ana Franco-Guzman)

By Ana Franco-Guzman

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Sunscreen, water, a bag, Bible, notebook, money to purchase food and a good singing voice were all on Loren Soto-Barrios’ “what to bring” list for last weekend’s “Together 2016” in Washington.

“Together 2016” was an initiative by Nick Hall, founder of the PULSE movement, who said the underlying message of the event was to “awaken culture to the reality of Jesus.”

“Francis Chan and Hillsong United,” 22-year-old Soto-Barrios told me when asked who she was most excited to see. They were among a number of speakers and recording artists who headlined the gathering, held near the Washington Monument.

She and her friends Michael Herelle, 22, Caitlyn Sass, 24, and Steve Nieves, 24, were four people in a crowd of about 350,000 people at the event. Soto-Barrios talked to me about the experience and what it took to get here for it.

On the Friday before, Herelle, Sass and Soto-Barrios left New Jersey and drove to Delaware to pick up Nieves. They were out of the house Saturday morning at about 7:30 a.m. to drive to Washington.

They then took a Metro subway train from The Catholic University of America stop to arrive at the National Mall by 9 a.m. It was at the Metro that we unexpectedly crossed paths.

“Once at the event, I saw that the line lasted for miles (but) I was not upset,” Soto-Barrios told me. “I had the opposite reaction, I was rejoicing. I could not believe this many people were waiting in line for this event. Everyone was there for Jesus, and it blew my mind that there were that many people there. I thank God for moments like that.”

In line the group of four split up, so that it would be easier to reserve a spot on the lawn. Herelle and Soto-Barrios waited in a security line, carrying the bags for all four. The other two went through an entrance for those without bags.

Soto-Barrios said at that moment she thought of “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World” by Joanna Weaver, saying that “like the man in the book,” Herelle would carry everyone’s “burdens” (bags) and would not be able to keep going. But Herelle told her it “was much easier to do this and that this was not the case.”

Once inside the fence, it was hard for Herelle and Soto-Barrios to find their friends because of the amount of people. Via their cellphones, they had to describe their surroundings in detail so they could find each other — and eventually they did.

“At the event we were asked to split into groups to pray, and it was so nice for all of us to come together and pray together. All from different races, ages, we got together and prayed for this event, this moment, our nation and for our God,” said Soto- Barrios.

It may sound silly, she said, but “I have had dreams of coming to Washington, of being there in that moment where we were over the weekend. Dreams of being there with that many people for God,” Soto-Barrios said.

One takeaway from the event for Soto-Barrios was to follow 1 Corinthians 13, the way of love. “We need to act with a spirit of love,” she told me. For her this means acting with love and not judgment toward everything.

“This weekend was a confirmation that it’s all the Holy Spirit that helps me in every situation to act in the name of Jesus. When we welcome him, everything just becomes clearer to you. God has a plan for me and has saved me. I want to figure out what that plan is,” Soto-Barrios said.

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, July 17, 2016

"Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way." -- Genesis 18:5

“Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.” — Genesis 18:5

July 17, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Genesis 18:1-10a

      Psalm 15:2-3, 5

      2) Colossians 1:24-28

      Gospel: Luke 10:38-42


By Sharon K. Perkins
Catholic News Service

My mother never ceases to amaze me. Any time I come for a visit, even on short notice, she’s got some sort of homemade treat ready in a matter of minutes. Whether it’s a piece of blackberry pie or chicken noodle soup, scratch-made spaghetti sauce or my favorite klobase sandwich, she’s able to produce something out of her freezer or pantry that makes me happy to sit at her kitchen table for a nice long visit.

I’m not the only one. Mom has a large “extended family” that includes parish priests, her kids’ former college roommates, retired army buddies and their wives, or old friends just passing through. And if she’s visiting their home, she never arrives empty-handed. And she makes it look so easy!

I think that Mom simply plans for generosity. As with Abraham and Sarah’s fine flour or tender, choice steer, Mom has already stocked up her supplies, and, even more important, she has the attitude that nothing is too good for guests. Nor are her visitors considered an imposition, for in welcoming them and seeing to their comfort, she welcomes the Lord.

In today’s Gospel, Martha and Mary illustrate both sides of that hospitality coin. Martha honors the tradition of her ancestors Abraham and Sarah by fussing over the preparations, the food, a comfortable environment. Mary attends to the guest in a different way, extending personal welcome and attention. Jesus isn’t unappreciative of Martha’s efforts, but her anxiety and worry are evidence that her focus is off-kilter.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are asked to reflect anew on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. At the root of each of them — whether visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful or instructing the ignorant — is an attitude of hospitality, of welcoming our Lord — the guest, as he comes to us in need of mercy and compassion.

This doesn’t just happen. Each of us must prepare and predispose ourselves to be mercifully hospitable, not only in giving material aid, but especially by engaging those to whom mercy is offered, as one would encounter Christ himself.

We don’t have to make mercy look easy, and we don’t have to worry about performing acts of mercy perfectly. But mercy is not an option.


Which of the spiritual or corporal works of mercy have you practiced lately? How have you encountered the living Christ more deeply in that action?

Rome: City of beauty, history and…#Pokemon?


By Junno Arocho Esteves


A Pokemon Go avatar in St. Peter’s Square.

ROME  — Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game based on the popular animated cartoon, has swept across the United States and has made it here to Italy.

The most coveted Pokestop in Vatican City, however, is the least accessible one: the window of the papal apartment where Pope Francis delivers his Sunday Angelus address.

Using a mobile phone’s GPS and camera, players can catch and train virtual Pokemon as well as battle with other players at designated areas called Pokegyms.

As players walk around, they can reach designated areas in the maps called Pokestops where they can pick items, such as Pokeballs, unhatched Pokemon eggs, and other goodies.


The window of the papal apartments is one of the many Pokestops in Vatican City.

Given my schedule, I’m not one to indulge in mobile games as often as I’d like, and maybe it’s for the better since I get hooked so easily. But after seeing all the fuss online, I decided to give it try. And yes, I got hooked.

I found myself walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome stopping every so often at a Pokestop or trying to catch a rogue Pokemon for my collection.

A walk from the office to St. Peter’s Square takes no more than 2 minutes. With Pokemon Go, it took me about 5 minutes, often times bumping into tourists because I was staring at my phone.

Looking around the square, almost every tourist had a phone; I was looking for any novice Pokemon masters like myself looking for goodies at one of the many Pokestops in St. Peter’s.

IMG_20160714_162815 (1)

One young tourist stares at her mobile phone in St. Peter’s Square.  (CNS photo/ Junno Arocho Esteves)

However, going around, discreetly looking at other people’s phones, I noticed they were either texting, snapping selfies in front of the basilica or recording videos of their children scurrying across the square.

Pokemon Go might bring a lot of people back to church, but not in the way one would expect, particularly because some Pokestops are actually churches. While riding a bus near the Vatican, I passed by the Roman parish of St. Peter the Apostle. And yes, it’s a Pokestop.

Nevertheless, I came to the realization that not only was I fully engrossed in the game, I was also alienating myself.


The Roman parish of St. Peter the Apostle is one of many Pokestops in Rome.

I was standing in the area where St. Peter was martyred, walking on stones that have been stepped on by countless saints, and yet I could only focus on where I could score a few Pokeballs and a Revive potion.

Technology has opened the doors to communicating with people and traveling to places we could only dream of.

But leaving it unchecked left me looking at a place that only existed in a fantasy world and not enjoying the true beauty out there. I’m reminded of Pope Francis’ wisdom on communicating with others: “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”

The following day, I walked to the office — phone in pocket — and realized that catching the sun rise over St. Peter’s Basilica was way more satisfying than catching Pokemon.

Refugees seen as resilient people who want to contribute to society

Young boy seen in a refugee camp in Libya in 2012. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Young boy seen in a refugee camp in Libya in 2012. (CNS photo/Reuters)

By Ana Franco-Guzman

Refugees arriving in the United States are resilient people who want to contribute to society, believes Darwensi Clark of the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services.

He’s seen it among the refugees he has worked with through the years.

Refugees are in a difficult position, he told Catholic News Service after a recent World Refugee Day program sponsored by MRS. Refugees don’t want to flee their homes and enter into an uncomfortable situation, which no one else would want, said Clark, who is associate director of processing operations for MRS.

For that reason, Americans should work to better understand what’s happening overseas to force people to flee their homeland, Clark said.

A refugee and an asylee shared their stories during the event.

Mussie Hadgu, a refugee from Eritrea who now lives in Arlington, Virginia, said he knows that with hard work anyone can succeed in the U.S.

“It’s hard to be a refugee,” he said. “There are many challenges in coming to a new country.” Mussie fled his beloved country in 2007 and sought refuge in Kenya. He stayed in Kenya for 7 years before resettling in the U.S. with the help of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.

Yosief Habte is an asylee from Asmara, Eritrea, who shared his story at the event. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has helped him find his new jobs, which are working for Metro and, in his free time, doing watercolor and collage paintings.

A veiled Afghan woman waits at U.N.-funded center in Pakistan in 2012. (CNS photo/Reuters)

A veiled Afghan woman waits at U.N.-funded center in Pakistan in 2012. (CNS photo/Reuters)

For the record MRS is the world’s largest nongovernmental resettlement organization. The organization has helped resettle more than 1 million refugees in the U.S. in its 50-year history.

Under definitions of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their home because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or participation in a social group.

An asylee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her homeland or to seek the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.

Asylees seek protection once they are in the U.S. while refugees apply for refugee status overseas.

The UNHCR reports there are 19.5 million refugees and 38.2 million internally displaced persons worldwide.

A person must apply for asylum within a year of entering the U.S. or of the expiration of their visa. If accepted, a person can apply for a green card one year after being granted asylum. If asylum is denied the next step is referral to an immigration court for removal proceedings.

The process a refugee undergoes takes one to three years from the date of application with the federal government. A refugee faces a stringent security clearance process which typically lasts 18 to 24 months. For the Syrian population, the process is being expedited, taking one to three months.

Clark told CNS “this country was built on welcoming newcomers into this country and we need to continue to do so. U.S. citizens should understand the importance of resettlement in this country.”

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, July 10, 2016

"Who is my neighbor?" -- Luke 10:29

“Who is my neighbor?” — Luke 10:29


July 10, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Deuteronomy 30:10-14

      Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37 or Psalm 19:8-11

      2) Colossians 1:15-20

      Gospel: Luke 10:25-37


By Jeff Hedglen
Catholic News Service

One difficulty of living the Christian life is that while most of it is simple, it’s often not easy. Love God, love your neighbor — simple concepts, but not always easy to accomplish.

Similar precepts are: serve the poor, sin less, pray daily, read the Bible regularly, and attend and participate fully at Mass on Sunday. There are many others, but you get the idea. All of these are so simple and basic that I hardly need to mention them, but none is easy to bring to fruition.

These tasks are not difficult because, as Moses says in this week’s first reading from Deuteronomy, we don’t have to go up in the sky to complete them or across the ocean to achieve them. No, he says, they are already planted within us; we only have to carry them out. Simple but not easy.

This week’s Gospel is one of the most challenging messages in the whole Bible. In answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus uses a person all Jews of the day despised. Jews were not to associate with Samaritans, so to use this person as the example of mercy would have seemed quite outlandish.

For modern-day Christians, this example may seem a bit simple, but as soon as you bring it up-to-date, it is not as easy as it sounds. For instance, think of the people or groups you find it hard to like, even people who have totally different viewpoints, morals, faith and country of origin than you do. These are our Samaritans; these are our neighbors.

We all have people in our lives that irk us far past what is holy. It is these people that Jesus says are our neighbors. It is these people we are to love. Pope Francis has trumpeted this message from Jesus that we are to go beyond our comfort zone and love these neighbors. Depending on the situation, this may not even be simple, let alone easy.

Yet Jesus calls us to do it all the same. His exact words are, “Go and do likewise.” We are to go and be merciful and loving to everyone we meet, even those we do not like.


Is there a person or a segment of society that you find hard to love? What can you do to show mercy to these people?