Funds raised during the collection in Pope Francis' public Masses in Mexico have a special destination: they will be used to build two new welcoming centers for the country’s large influx of immigrants.
“On the occasion of the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy we have decided to open two new welcoming centers for immigrants: one at the border with Mazapa (de Madero) and another in Salto de Agua,” Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel said a Dec. 30 interview with Zenit news agency.
“I told the Pope that the collection we are doing for the visit, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference, will be destined for the construction of these two new structures. It is what we will symbolically deliver in the collection of the Mass.”
Bishop Esquivel heads the Mexican diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, near Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, where Pope Francis will visit on his third full day in Mexico.
The Pope is scheduled to make a Feb. 12-17 visit to the country, during which he will also travel to the crime-ridden city of Morelia and the U.S.-Mexico border town Ciudad Juarez. He will also pay a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he has stated is the primary reason for going to Mexico.
Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe goes back to the 16th century when a “Lady from Heaven” appeared to Saint Juan Diego, a poor Indian from Tepeyac, on a hill northwest of Mexico City. Over the course of a series of apparitions in 1531, the Woman, who identified herself as the Mother of the True God, instructed Juan Diego to have the bishop build a church on the site.
As a sign, the now-famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was imprinted miraculously on his tilma. Both the image and the tilma remain intact after more than 470 years.
Francis will hold a public Mass every day of the trip, apart from the day he arrives, adding up to five in total. Collection funds from all of them will go toward the two new welcoming centers for immigrants.
A regular contributor to Zenit’s Spanish edition, Bishop Esquivel spoke with the agency during a recent two-week trip to Rome to flesh out the final details ahead of the Pope’s visit.
He met with the Pope at his residence in the Vatican’s Santa Martha guesthouse alongside the Archbishop of Tuxla Gutierrez, Fabio Martínez Castilla.
In the course of the meeting, Pope Francis explained that aside from visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, his main reason for going to Mexico are the problems the country faces due to migration and violence, Bishop Esquivel told Zenit.
After informing Francis of their plans for the collection money raised during his public Masses, the bishop said he also explained that the local church already manages three other such centers: one in Palenque, a second in Comitán de Dominguez and a third in San Martín de Porres, which was just inaugurated Nov. 3, 2015.
All three of the centers are in the Chiapas region of Mexico, which has a high indigenous population and sits along the country’s border with Guatemala.
The problem of immigration in Mexico “is serious,” the bishop said, noting that the number of incoming migrants tends to increase when “work or security for people is lacking.”
Most of Mexico’s incoming migrants are from what the bishop referred to as “the northern triangle of Central America.” Namely, from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Others also arrive from Cuba, India and China.
Bishop Esquivel explained that among those who come are many mothers with young children. He recounted how one of these women with a 10 month old baby told him if she stayed in Honduras, “they will kill me and take my daughter.”
“This is what happens with migration to Europe, (it’s) because of the lack of security and work.”
When asked why so many choose to go to the United States when they are unable to become regularized citizens, the bishop responded by saying the problem is often aggravated by “false information.”
Parents, he said, are misled into thinking that “if children arrived to the United States they could acquire citizenship automatically, which is not true, and these lies serve the ones who exploit migrants, charging them $3-5,000 to let them pass (the border).”
“It pains us a lot to see groups of people walk for kilometers and kilometers and arrive at our welcoming centers with blistered feet, sick,” the bishop said, explaining that the centers they have established offer migrants basic assistance such as access to food, beds and showers.
There is also a certain juridical protection that is offered, “so that they can have legal refuge or also defend themselves from violations that there are on the part of some minor authorities.”
While some Mexican authorities have been “ambivalent” in their position toward incoming migrants, there is still “too much control for them to pass,” Bishop Esquivel said.
One example he pointed to was the fact that migrants are not allowed to cross the border on the famous train called “the beast,” which is a network of Mexican freight trains frequently used by U.S.-bound immigrants who want to pass through Mexico more quickly.
Because using the train is illegal, immigrants are left to search for “other paths that are more dangerous,” Bishop Esquivel observed.
On the topic of drug trafficking, the bishop was asked how there can be such high levels of drug related problems and violence in Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country where nearly everyone considers themselves to be a “guadalupano,” that is, a committed devotee to Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary, in a more general translation.
In response, he said that money is a major root cause: “Unfortunately money corrupts everything, at times event the Church itself,” he noted, explaining that many youth can't find work, and as a result “these criminal gangs recruit them, force them to steal, to kill, to traffic drugs.”
And if they don't do what the gangs want, “(the gangs) kill them along with their families.”
However, despite the depth of the country’s wide range of problems, Bishop Esquivel said that people are excited for the Pope’s upcoming visit.
Pope Francis is giving everyone a much-needed “Gospel kick…and because of this the people love him a lot,” he said.
It’s not only the Pope’s humility and simplicity the people admire, but the fact that Francis “is going to the essence of the Gospel, and he doesn't leave the bishops or himself out.”