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

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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.”

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

A faith connection on Cuba’s slow but emerging lane of technology

HAVANA — It’s a scene all too familiar in the U.S., but not one you’d expect in Cuba: a group of schoolgirls cupping their cellphones with their hands, protecting them from the glare of the tropical sun. Most are looking at pictures or listening to music downloaded on the phone’s memory card. Few can access the Internet using their phones.

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones in their hands to protect from the sun's glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest  gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith.  (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones with their hands to protect from the sun’s glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith. (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

Internet is not illegal in Cuba, but it’s regulated, it’s not easy to get and it’s too expensive for the average Cuban to afford (sometimes an hour can cost as much as a quarter or half of a monthly paycheck). Estimates of Internet connectivity vary: some say 5 percent of the island’s 11 million inhabitants have Internet access, others say 25 percent.

Yet cellphones, lately smartphones and even tablets, are not an uncommon sight. Some have been brought in by relatives abroad eager to communicate regularly with family on the island. But younger Cubans eager to communicate with the rest of the world are finding ways to put more than the devices’ telephone ability to use. Those eager enough to connect to the world outside of Cuba can find their way toward Internet at hotels that offer free Wi-Fi or other tourist-friendly establishments that sometimes have easy-to-hack passwords.

In Catholic circles, technology, even without the Internet, has long been used on the island as a way to transmit the faith. Though they may not always be able to access online content, some Catholics admit downloading and sharing the Bible, versions of the Liturgy of the Hours — a set of prayers also known as the Divine Office — and other religious content using memory cards that can be inserted into cellphones, desktops or TV sets.

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones,  or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones, or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Some say that “for a price,” in other words, on the black market, they have purchased and downloaded movies such as the “Son of God” movie and the “Catholicism” video series by Father Robert Barron on a thumb drive. They plug the thumb drives into another device at home to enjoy the religious content that may not otherwise be available to them and their families, not because it’s prohibited, but because it can’t be readily found in a store.

Cuban Catholics also have made a debut on Facebook. The Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba has a Facebook page. Recent status updates include Lenten activities and the rebuilding of churches damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Before the cellphones, the memory cards and tablets arrived, many say that, back in the day, they watched movies about the lives of the saints and other popular Catholic media events using Beta and VHS cassettes — in case you remember what those looked like.

Guidos, an editor at Catholic News Service, went on a Lenten pilgrimage to Cuba in early March. This is the first in a series of blogs about the daily life of Catholics in Cuba.

Canonization may prove a boon to Washington shrine

Roman street vendors and devotees of Blessed John Paul II aren’t the only ones happy about what the canonization of the late pope will mean for them.

Officials at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C. also hope the upcoming canonization of the Polish pontiff will be a boon to their center, which has struggled in the past with visitors and finances.

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the shrine, said changes already were underway for expansion (in the spring of 2014) of exhibition space devoted to the life of Karol Wojtyla and his journey toward becoming John Paul II. However, with news in early July that Pope Francis signed a decree clearing the way for John Paul’s canonization, shrine officials quickly began planning events and an expanded exhibit in case he is canonized before the year is out. The Vatican has not yet announced a date for the ceremony.

“We were shocked but very happily surprised” with the timing, Smith said. “We knew he was a going to be saint.”

Besides changing the name to the St. John Paul II Shrine, the Washington center named after the pope will feature, at the time of his canonization, a liturgical schedule, including a Mass and a feed to the goings on at the Vatican, for those who want to take part of the historical day.

“If you can’t go to Rome for the canonization, come to the shrine,” Smith said.

The shrine also plans the exposition of a relic – a piece of the blood-stained cassock John Paul was wearing during an assassination attempt – for veneration.

The day of John Paul’s canonization “will be the most important day this place sees,” Smith said.

The Knights of Columbus bought the property in 2011 for $22.7 million and plan to quadruple the exhibition space devoted to the Polish pontiff. The center originally opened in 2001 as the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center and cost $75 million to build. The property has been valued at $37.7 million.
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