Journalist with family ties to Juárez goes as both reporter and pilgrim

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A sign over Paseo Triunfo de la República thanks Pope Francis in advance of his Feb. 17 visit. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
A sign over Paseo Triunfo de la República thanks Pope Francis in advance of his Feb. 17 visit. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

CIUDAD JUÁREZ ― There was lots of excitement as I drove with my family to Ciudad Juárez yesterday afternoon. For my family, this trip was three-fold.

  • First, I am covering Pope Francis’ visit to this city.
  • Secondly, we’re coming as pilgrims.
  • And lastly, I’m coming home – my mother grew up in Juárez, and I’m staying with my aunt.

The drive from Phoenix to El Paso is a pretty one, even with a toddler in the back seat. As we crossed the bridge into Ciudad Juáre — the first time I’d physically driven into Mexico in about 10 years — we saw the signs everywhere welcoming Pope Francis.

After getting settled in at my aunt’s house, I checked in at the Press Center at one of the convention centers. I had the chance to meet quite a few of my fellow journalists, including members of the Catholic press in Honduras, and others from throughout my native Texas. We talked shop and wished each other well.

Hats and T-shirts commemorating Pope Francis’ visit were on sale at the San Lorenzo gift shop. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
Hats and T-shirts commemorating Pope Francis’ visit were on sale at the San Lorenzo gift shop. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Then began the real work. I had the opportunity to meet some pilgrims from Phoenix at the parish near where my family lives. I met them in the gift shop and saw a line going through the whole store. There were hats, T-shirts, and many other items for sale commemorating the pope’s visit. Rosa and Sergio Siller from Sacred Heart Parish in Phoenix were buying gifts to be blessed for friends.

While they waited in line, I decided to go downstairs to the church’s mausoleum. It’s there that my great-uncle, Francisco Ochoa Cunningham, is interred. He’s in the “Santiago” (St. James) section. My great-aunt told me he chose this section honor of his grandfather, an Irish immigrant to Mexico named James Cunningham.

After paying my respects and going back upstairs to interview the Sillers, I found myself feeling the same sentiments as Sergio. He’s a Juárez native and, like me, is staying with family.

Francisco Ochoa Cunningham, Tony Gutiérrez’s great-uncle, is interred in the mausoleum in San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) Parish in Juárez. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
Francisco Ochoa Cunningham, Tony Gutiérrez’s great-uncle, is interred in the mausoleum in San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) Parish in Juárez. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

I remember visiting my grandparents when I was a kid. My brother and I spent our summers here, and we would have large family gatherings for Christmas. I remember going to the parishes of Sagrada Corazón (Sacred Heart), Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), Señor de Misericordia (Our Lord of Mercy) – where my grandparents are interred, and of course, San Lorenzo. These places are familiar to me, so as violence escalated here while I was in college, my heart wept for this city.

But in the midst of that is hope, a message the Holy Father wants to bring. “He’s going to visit the prisoners, mothers of victims of violence…” Sergio told me. Pope Francis brings “a message of hope, reconciliation and mercy” not just to the city, “but the whole country.”

San Lorenzo is one of the parishes in the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez with designated Holy Doors of Mercy. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
San Lorenzo is one of the parishes in the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez with designated Holy Doors of Mercy. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

I saw some nuns praying earlier, but I couldn’t find them to interview them when I went back. But I did discover why there were so many people praying there at 8 o’clock at night. At the front of the church is a sign that reads quite boldly: “Puerta de la Misericordia” ― Door of Mercy. I passed through those doors earlier not even realizing the significance.

And speaking of mercy, I developed another story idea when I saw locals passing out commemorative posters. Not sure what they were doing, I approached them and learned they were trying to show hospitality to the pilgrims. They were planning to also provide food and water to the pilgrims lined up along the papal route on Wednesday.

“We want people to know that the people of Juárez are not bad people,” said Carlos Torres.

I was impressed by these local parishioners “welcoming the stranger” into their city. The reality is, Pope Francis’ visit means nothing if people don’t take the message he’s bringing in living out a Christian life, something that Juárez needs, and the people are ready for.

So for me, I’m here to cover the pope’s visit and the pilgrims. But I’m also one of them. I am a pilgrim, and in many ways I’m also a local. And I have hope.

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