When Pope Francis arrives in the borderlands on Wednesday to celebrate afternoon Mass before thousands at a freshly built altar and pavilion called “El Punto” on the old Juarez fairgrounds, the pontiff will also make a stop at the Cereso state prison to visit several hundreds prisoners and their families.
The prison, known as the Centro de Readaptación Social para Adultos No. 3, has a reputation as a rough facility for hardened criminals and in the past has experienced several riots and killings.
On Wednesday, a group of Cereso prisoners will greet “el Papa” with a special song when he arrives at the prison doors at about 10:30 a.m. It is his first stop along a 25-mile human chain leading from the Juarez airport to the site of the Mass at El Punto. As in his visits to prisons in previous tours of U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Pope Francis is expected to bring a message of love, hope and forgiveness to the Cereso inmates and their families.
Although few details are available of what Pope Francis will say and do during his hour-long stay at Cereso, some local prison officials are hopeful his visit and message will have a positive and lasting influence on the incarcerated. Inmates at other Juarez prisons and detention facilities are also likely to be watching or listening to the Mass.
Jose Ordoñez, director of the juvenile facility called Centro de Rehabilitación Social No. 2 in Juarez, said the Argentinean-born pope’s first ever visit to the border city will have reverberations in the future.
“Imagine what a public icon and man of God like Pope Francis can do with a lot of the prisoners,” Ordoñez said. He said he personally has seen positive changes in some juvenile prisoners after they have received previous visits from church leaders and motivational speakers. He expects the pope’s visit will have a similar impact among them.
“We’ve seen several young kids get it because most of them just need someone that sets them on the right path,” he said. “They just need a little push, and guest speakers that come in are effective in doing such thing. Many of them even want to start going to seminars after being released.”
Oscar Marroquín, president of Centro de Rehabilitación Social No. 2, said that the pope’s upcoming visit to the city has created a sense of excitement and expectation among the general public as well as the incarcerated.
“Obviously because of who he is, because of the impact that he has had all over the entire world, and also because 80 percent of our country (Mexico) is Catholic, almost everybody is awaiting his visit with eagerness,” said Marroquín, who is also a Protestant minister.
He believes the juvenile offenders under his charge will also benefit from the pope’s visit to Cereso, and motivate them to change their lives.
“I’ve had so many cases in which these young men tell me how sorry they are, that it was a dumb mistake, that they were not supposed to be there at that time,” Marroquín said. “A lot of these people feel that what they did has no way of being forgiven … . It represents a lot for the prisoner that somebody of the stature of Pope Francis humbles himself and goes to visit them in a place like the Cereso prison – something that to many of them will be an act of awe.”
Although Marroquín is not Catholic, he says he feels “love and respect for (the pope) because that’s what God asks me to do…” He also believes the pope’s message will a lasting and positive effect on the lives of some prisoners.
“I think God will use Pope Francis to speak love, grace, forgiveness and friendship to all those prisoners that are slated to be in that meeting,” Marroquín said.
“I’m praying that God uses him to change the lives of every single man behind those bars,” he said. “That they set their eyes on what really matters. That they find their way back into their families, and that they fully understand that we have a God that forgives any crime or sin that we might have committed.”
Find more information about the pope’s itinerary in Juarez February 17 here: http://www.elpasodiocese.org/popes-visit.html