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Border Catholics Ready to Welcome Pope Francis

After weeks of planning and speculation about what Pope Francis might say during his visit to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez area on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Catholics are finally ready for the all-day affair.

Pope Francis hugs two girls during a meeting with youths at José María Morelos y Pavón stadium in Morelia, Mexico on Feb. 16. 2016.

EL PASO — Tens of thousands of El Pasoans and visitors are expected to converge on Sun Bowl Stadium Wednesday to bow their heads and celebrate Mass with Pope Francis, who, as the first Latin American pontiff, is embraced by Catholics in this predominantly Hispanic community as one of their own.

Taking place south of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, the Mass will be televised live at the stadium on the University of Texas at El Paso campus.

Though warning that no single visit by any spiritual leader is a cure-all, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the El Paso Diocese has high expectations that his Holiness’s visit will re-energize the Catholic community on both sides of the river.

“A Papal visit is not a magic elixir for every challenge the Church faces, but it is hard to imagine any event that could be of more help,” Seitz said in an email shortly after the visit was announced last month. “Here locally I believe the Pope’s visit will be a very healing experience for the people of Ciudad Juárez who have suffered so much.  It is my hope that this will be an opportunity for many to reconnect with their faith.  I am also hopeful that our border region will find itself more united across borders and languages and cultures.” 

Though the physical distance between the two venues is just miles, it could just as well be continents away for undocumented immigrants unable to risk crossing the border to see the pope in Mexico and then attempting to return to El Paso. Immigration is just one theme the pontiff is expected to address during his visit. He suggested last year that crossing the border into the United States would be a “beautiful gesture.”

If Francis' message echoes remarks delivered in other parts of Mexico earlier this week, he will criticize institutional problems plaguing Mexico. He reportedly asked a crowd in the Mexican state of Morelia what temptation could come from areas plagued by “violence, corruption, drug trafficking,” according to a Reuters report Tuesday.

Texas Democrats said on Tuesday that the visit couldn’t come at a better time given the divisive climate over immigration and border security in Austin.

“I, like hundreds of thousands of other people in our border community, plan to be in attendance tomorrow to hear the Pope's message about embracing migrants, immigrants and refugees,” state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso in a statement. “He has stood up for the human dignity and rights of migrants and workers, a message that is incredibly important in these times and in this place.”

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who will also travel to the borderlands to see the pope, said in a statement she was hopeful "that Pope Francis will bring the message that leaders must work together to create a more sensible, humane immigration policy.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to issue a comment on Francis' visit, despite his Catholic faith and his stated commitment to establishing closer ties to the border region.

Asked specifically about the pope’s visit to Ciudad Juárez, Abbott spokesman John Wittman sent a recording of an interview with reporters in Hidalgo County last week. In that question-and-answer period, Abbott was asked whether he agreed that Francis' visit to the border is politically motivated, as GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has stated.

Abbott's answer was, simply: “You’d have to ask the pope.”

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