DENVER, Colorado – This week, Pope Francis released his annual message for the Church’s World Day of Peace, and, unsurprisingly for a pope who’s the son of immigrants and who’s made the welfare of migrants and refugees a constant focus of his papacy, the message focused on people on the move.
“Those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace, are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia, which are matters of great concern for all those concerned for the safety of every human being,” the pontiff said.
Francis may not have known it, but some 5,500 miles away in Denver, Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez was already preparing to bring that message to the grassroots in the Rocky Mountains by celebrating a “First Annual Mass for Immigrants and Refugees” at Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Sunday, Nov. 26.
“The Lord will not abandon his people,” Rodriguez told Crux, speaking about immigrants and refugees. Rodriguez, himself an immigrant from Merida, Mexico, celebrated the Mass in Spanish.
As it happens, the immigrant Mass came on the same Sunday the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a “Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians,” saying that the Nov. 26 Solemnity of Christ the King “is a fitting time to reflect on religious freedom and Christians around the world who are being persecuted in unheard of numbers.”
Though it’s not quite the same thing as persecution for the faith, many members of Rodriguez’s flock nevertheless experience their own forms of hardship and persecution due to their immigrant status.
Rodriguez alluded to those difficulties in his homily on Sunday, describing people not being able to see and embrace family members, and saying that now “there are documents, walls, processes, politics that day-by-day impede this happiness.”
The bishop also spoke about immigrants who already hold deportation orders in their hands.
“They can’t sleep, thinking about the moment of execution of the order and what will happen to their family,” he said.
Rodriguez referred to people who “go to work with fear and uncertainty,” and most of all, young people whose “dream of a future is turned into a nightmare.”
Yet the 62-year-old Rodriguez, who was appointed as an auxiliary bishop under Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila in August 2016, is an optimist by nature, and so he holds out hope for people experiencing the agony he described.
Among other things, Rodriguez said he would personally intervene on behalf of anyone asking his help in a deportation case – although, he said, in the one case in which that’s happened so far, he was unable to accomplish anything because the message asking for his help was relayed too late in the process.
“There’s fear, especially for people who have no legal way to stay here, wondering if they will leave and not see their children again,” Rodriguez told Crux about the present legal and political environment in America.
He said “it was worse in the beginning of the year, [because] we didn’t know what was coming. Now, there is still fear.”
Yet, Rodriguez said, things are a bit better, if only because the contours of what’s at stake are clearer.
“After a couple of months, we know where we’re at. We know DACA will end if we don’t do something. Now there’s a clear vision of what is going on. That means you can be prepared,” he told Crux.
“Most people agree something has to be done in favor of these people. There’s a common sense [desire] that something will be done for them. I hope the Congress will have the heart and wisdom to do something,” he said. “I want to keep my hope that this is going to be fixed.”
With a touch of realism, he adds, “I think that’s the anchor I need to hold.”
In his homily, Rodriguez also made a point of sending out greetings and appreciation for “the Americans who work with the immigrants. They are walking the walk with us.” He was insistent about cherishing the United States, and all that it has done for him and many immigrants.
Maria Elisa Olivas, 24, came to the Mass because she “wanted to support the immigrant community,” and she wanted “to show we are all united, and we are all sons and daughters of God.” She too has a personal stake in it, since her parents are originally immigrants from Mexico. She works for Catholic Charities in Denver.
“I do have a couple of friends who are part of the program DACA,” she told Crux. “I am of course praying for them and all the processes they’re going through.”
She says that these friends have gone through a bit of a transition since the news broke that President Donald Trump would rescind the the program.
“At first, they were really mad…but after talking to them and giving a little hope to them and the trust in God, they seem to be a little more trusting in God.” Olivas said, “so they seem much more comfortable with what’s going on and not as worried as they were before.”
Like the bishop, Olivas feels optimistic. “Trust in the Lord is contagious. If Jesus was an immigrant, then so are all the ones who are here, and we’re supportive of that.”
“We know the Lord hears our prayers, and we know that when we’re all united, we show hope, and we know God is listening to our prayers,” said Luis Maurizio, 26, another participant in Sunday’s Mass.
Born in El Paso, Maurizio is a U.S. citizen, but spent the first half of his life in Juarez, Mexico. He says that he too knows people who know first-hand the fears Rodriguez mentioned.
“One of my friends, he was just diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. He’s 24, and he’s undocumented, so he’s going through a rough time right now.”
Both were surprised and excited by the size of the crowd. It was standing room only. The cathedral seats 800, but the informal estimate for turnout at Sunday’s Mass was between 1,000 and 1,500 people.
Speaking to the largely immigrant congregation on Sunday, Rodriguez alluded to Jesus being an immigrant and his ability to empathize with the situation of today’s immigrants and refugees “not only because he was one, but because he identifies with what they have to go through when they arrive in a country.”
In the end, Rodriguez said, “Christ the king is victorious. Whatever comes he will be on our side.”
What’s on his wish list for the year to come?
“2018 will give all of them a sense of security and that they will feel loved and feel welcomed in our country.”
Rodriguez ended his message to the immigrants with a quote from W.B. Yeats’s poem, “He wishes for the cloths of Heaven.”
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.