United States

Church on the move: Dioceses on the U.S.-Mexico border

In this first article of the "Church on the Move" series, we enter the U.S.-Mexico border diocese of San Diego. This series of articles will present the diversity of the Church in the USA, its achievements, hopes and pastoral work.

Gonzalo Meza-December 19, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
San Diego

Border agents at the U.S.-Mexico fence south of San Diego (OSV News photo / Mike Blake, Reuters)

The Church in the United States (USA) is the fourth largest in the world (70 million Catholics) and one of the most diverse. The immense territory has 196 ecclesiastical jurisdictions that include the 50 states and the extracontinental territories. In this country the word of God has been proclaimed and the sacraments imparted since the 16th century. The vastness of the territory includes abysmal geographic, social and demographic differences. There are dioceses inserted in the desert with extreme heat of up to 50 degrees (122 fahrenheit) like the diocese of Phoenix (Arizona desert); others where most of the year they live under the ice with freezing temperatures, like the diocese of Fairbanks in Alaska; there are other places that are tropical paradises like the diocese of Honolulu in Hawaii. How is the Word of God proclaimed and the sacraments administered in these places? How is pastoral work organized around the geographic, social and demographic circumstances? What are the most pressing problems, given the vastness of the territory?

This series of articles that begins Omnes USA will present the diversity of the Church in the USA, its achievements, hopes and pastoral work from the perspective of the fundamental unity of the Church: its parishes. They are a microcosm of the diocesan and pastoral reality. We will travel through various parts of the country reaching their geographic and existential peripheries. These articles will present their challenges, successes and multiple stories that, although they may not make the front pages of the tabloids, have transformed the lives of millions of Americans.

The objective is to present through their dioceses, parishes and pastoral activities some of the particularities that distinguish each jurisdiction. In this way, we will visit some of the mission dioceses in the USA (which do not have sufficient funds of their own to subsist and depend on external resources) which are located in Appalachia, the Rocky Mountains or on the southern and northwestern border of the country. We will also present the exciting pastoral work on Native American Indian reservations. We will go to the geographic and existential peripheries of this country. We begin this series in one of them: the border between Mexico and the United States.

The U.S. Southern Border

The border between Mexico and the United States is one of the most dynamic and diverse transnational spaces in the world. It has an extension of 3,141 km. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. On both sides of the border, 19 million Americans live in four U.S. states, as well as 11 million Mexicans in six U.S. states. There are 48 border crossing points between Mexico and the United States. The busiest is "San Ysidro", in San Diego, California. It is the busiest land crossing in the western hemisphere and one of the busiest on the planet. 

These ports are the veins that feed the economic system of both countries. Mexico is the third largest economic partner of the US with an approximate annual trade of 614 billion dollars. Mexico, the United States and Canada have been part of a trade agreement (originally called NAFTA, later T-MEC) since 1994. This zone is the second largest trading region in the world, after the European Union. Cross-border dynamism has a dark side: undocumented migration. Although most of the daily land crossings are made with documents, hundreds of people try to cross into the U.S. without the required permits. 

Border Diocese: San Diego 

Located in the southwest of the United States, the Diocese of San DiegoIt is located in the state of California, bordering to the south with the Diocese of Tijuana. Before its creation as its own jurisdiction it belonged to the Diocese of Los Angeles. 

The Catholic presence in the region dates back to the 18th century, with the Franciscan missions. The first friars led by St. Junípero Serra established the San Diego de Alcalá Mission in 1769 and, later, the San Luis Rey de Francia Mission in 1798. Currently the diocese covers 22,926 square kilometers. It is presided over by Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, who was named bishop of San Diego on April 15, 2015, and cardinal in May 2022. The diocese has approximately 1. 392. 000 Catholics, 97 parishes and several missions. There are a total of 154 priests diocesan priests, 88 religious priests and 181 religious sisters. Like most North American dioceses, it has an important structure of educational, social and health services that provide services to more than 400,000 people each year. More than 32,000 students are enrolled in its schools, from elementary school to university. 

The pastoral priorities of the Diocese of San Diego include the promotion of Catholic spirituality, especially the Holy Mass, evangelization and systematic catechesis, the promotion and strengthening of marriage, priestly and religious vocations, the family and youth, the promotion of culture and the defense of life in all its stages. In this area, one of the priorities is the attention to refugees, immigrants, documented and undocumented. It is estimated that there are close to 200,000 undocumented immigrants in the region, most of them from Mexico. "Our diocese covers the entire California-Mexico border. The border influences the pastoral life of the entire diocese, not just the parishes and Catholic schools closest to the border," says Aida Bustos, media director for the Diocese of San Diego. 

Parish work on the frontier: Bringing God's mercy to the poorest of the poor 

One of the parishes located a few steps from the border is Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Calexico, California, southwest of San Diego. It borders the city of Mexicali. Its pastor is Father Jose Sosa, a religious of the Order of the Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools, Escolapios. In the city of Calexico live about 40,000 inhabitants, of which about 3,000 attend Sunday Masses and various parish activities. The majority of the population is Hispanic, second generation immigrants. They work in the fields and in the commercial sector. In the parish there are several family-oriented apostolates, such as the Christian Family Movement, catechism study and sacrament preparation for children and youth. 

Working with immigrants

Being a peripheral parish, located on the border, one of the ministries is the care of immigrants. Father José Sosa talks to Omnes about this apostolate that has become especially important in the last five years (except for 2020 and part of 2021 because of the pandemic), due to an unprecedented increase in the number of immigrants arriving at the border with Mexico, trying to enter the U.S. in search of the American dream.

Migrants are fleeing the poverty and violence that has increased in Mexico and Central America. It is a situation that particularly affects the Mexican border cities, because in those places thousands of immigrants are stuck, waiting their turn to be called by the immigration authorities or simply an opportunity to cross without permits. On the U.S. side, in the border parishes of the Diocese of San Diego the situation is also felt but not with the same intensity. Many of those who manage to cross into the U.S. without papers come to the parishes looking for help or simply a place to rest and then continue their journey.

Regarding the support that the parish provides to immigrants who manage to cross the border, Father José affirms that "the Lord's mercy is the most important thing. Every human being has his or her own dignity, whether or not they have a migration permit. In that sense, the parish is open to offer them a place where they can rest, contact family members and receive food. Many of them have traveled thousands of kilometers from Central America or Mexico, passing through geographically dangerous places such as the desert".

Some come sick, bleeding with blisters on their feet. Father José affirms that in the parish they are given the care they need, but above all they are given affection, "so that they feel they have a family and that there are people who will treat them like brothers and sisters".

Father José says that in addition to this service, the parish organizes the "posada del migrante" every year at Christmas. In this activity the parishioners go to the border where they form two groups, divided by the metal fence. On both sides traditional songs are sung to "pedir posada" and sing Christmas carols and at the end deliver gifts or supplies. There is another parish in Calexico, which regularly collects food to take to the Mexican side of the border. 

There have been many stories that have touched the hearts of Father José and the community of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One of them was that of three young undocumented Guatemalans who arrived with a 4-year-old child. "They came looking for a better future for their families. We welcomed them in our parish house and we had dinner together. At one point they began to cry thinking about what was going to happen to their lives. The tears faded away when she saw her four year old boy who was very happy playing with a little car given to him by the parish community. In his innocence, he did not know that at his age he was already an immigrant. His joy and tenderness infected his relatives and the priests and the suffering dissipated. "Tenderness is one of the most valuable things in life," says Father Sosa.

Immigrants will continue to pass through this and many other North American border parishes, what to do and how to help them? Father Sosa recommends: "Mercy is the heart of Christ. Those of us who call ourselves Catholics are called to have the same heart of Christ and to support each of our brothers and sisters who are looking for a better future for their families, fleeing violence and the many misfortunes we experience in our countries.

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