Do you remember the video clips of 5-year-old Sophie Cruz dashing across Constitution Avenue to Pope Francis’s popemobile during his visit to Washington, D.C., last September? The story of that encounter went viral: a young child with undocumented parents from Mexico who was granted permission to approach the pope, give him a letter, and receive a hug.
At the time, many seemed surprised by encounters like these during the pope’s U.S. trip — particularly that he would choose to make personal contact with the realities faced by marginalized populations. But this encounter-centered approach has been Francis’ way of operating since the outset of his pontificate.
In July 2013, he decided to visit the southern Italian island of Lampedusa to remember the thousands of African migrants who died in their attempt to reach the island. There he personally met with newly arrived migrants before celebrating mass in a sports field that had been converted into a migrant reception center. Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan during his homily, he asked, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these [migrant] brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat?”
Last year when making his first trip to Africa, Francis visited the Kangemi Slum on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital. He walked a muddy street to a meeting with community leaders, where he learned about the realities facing women preyed on by gangs and the greed of businesspeople seeking to take advantage of poor residents. Wanting the residents of Kangemi to know where he stood on their reality Francis said, “I am here because I want you to know that your joys and hopes, your troubles and your sorrows, are not indifferent to me. I realize the difficulties which you experience daily! How can I not denounce the injustices which you suffer?” He closed his speech to the community, addressing them as “neighbors” and inviting them to join him to “pray, work, and commit,” themselves to ensuring that every family could have their basic needs met, including: drinking water, a toilet, electric, schools, hospitals, etc.
Now Pope Francis comes to a conflict-ridden Mexico — specifically, a region reeling from migration, gangs, and the drug trade. According to Human Rights Watch, Mexico’s war on drugs has left 77,000 people dead and nearly 30,000 missing over the past decade.
To the south, vulnerable populations in Central America, including many women and children, are fleeing soaring violence and poverty in hopes of seeking refuge in the U.S. Their journey takes them through Mexico, where they encounter gangs, coyotes, and Mexican migration and law enforcement officials who have been accused of extrajudicial actions that violate the rights and dignity of migrants, making migrants susceptible to robbery, sexual assault, abduction, and even death. In June 2015, Amnesty International produced a report calling for Mexican officials to investigate the a spike of violent attacks against undocumented migrants from Central America, citing more than 200 cases where migrants, including several children, who were attacked and in some cases killed by armed gangs.
Pope Francis ventures into Mexico amid these challenging realities, but he does so in a way the world is growing to recognize — his signature approach of “encounter.” Francis’ itinerary includes visits to a children’s hospital and a prison, meetings with indigenous and labor leaders, and a Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border on his final day.
“It is not conflict that offers prospects of hope for solving problems, but rather the capacity for encounter and dialogue.” -Pope Francis
What is the intent of this mass on the border? It’s a fair question to ask, given that the U.S.-Mexico border has become one of the most prolific divides in the world, pitting wealth against poverty, white against brown, documented against undocumented.
Some will say that Pope Francis is trying to be political by coming to the border — and there are certainly political dimensions to the issues raised by his visit. Others say that his presence will create conflict for Church and political leaders by suggesting the Church’s allegiance to a particular viewpoint or political ideology.
Conflict is inevitable when we talk about the border and policy solutions involving migration and immigration. But let’s remember what Pope Francis demonstrated when Sophie Cruz ran up to him in front of the White House with her letter; when he prayed with African migrants in the middle of the reception center in Lampedusa; when he walked through the mud to be with the impoverished residents of the Kangemi Slum.
Just like Jesus’ encounters with the leper, the prostitute, and Lazarus, our faith is grounded in encountering the “other.” It is these encounters that help us to understand where God needs us most in the world.