MOUNT CRISTO REY, N.M. – On the narrow edge of a cliff more than 2,000 feet up Mount Cristo Rey, the march came to a sudden halt. The slight morning chill of fall settling in the desert became more apparent, blowing past a slow procession ambling in both directions.
The line of trekkers had been backed up all the way to the 11th Station of the Cross: Jesus is nailed to the cross. This was truly a pilgrim’s Passion play.
On the morning of October 31, an estimated 30,000 followers celebrated the Feast of Cristo Rey, an annual pilgrimage and Mass at Mount Cristo Rey. The approximately five mile procession to the top of the 4,675-feet-high peak brought young and old throughout the border region together for different personal reasons but united in faith.
The ceremony was co-celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California. Cardinal Mahony, an outspoken advocate for immigrants’ rights, agreed to join at the invitation of Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces. The two presided over the Mass along with Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of the Diocese of El Paso, among other clergy.
“It is a great pleasure to be with you, pilgrims of Cristo Rey who climb the mountain to pray to the image of Cristo Rey,” Cardinal Mahony said in his statement to the public at the base of the mountain before the procession. He expressed his empathy in faith with “those on both sides of the border who are asking for God’s blessings for all of us.”
The Cardinal’s visit to the border is symbolic of his work advocating comprehensive immigration reform. The ceremony even featured a relic of Santo Toribio, patron Saint of Mexican Immigrants, on loan from the Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in San Antonio, Texas. “Santo Toribio lived during the time of persecution in the church in Mexico,” explained Bishop Ramirez. “He is a martyr.”
Peace and justice for those along the border were underlying themes of the day. In his opening remarks, Bishop Ramirez evoked the urgency for peace along the border:
“Today we are going to dedicate our prayers for peace along the border, on both sides. Peace not only far away in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places of conflict, but for those who are right here in our backyard. Let us pray with all our hearts that peace may soon come for Juarez…and other places of conflict in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela.”
Cardinal Mahony is nationally known for his positions and work for immigrants’ justice. “We now live in a society that has accepted de facto the presence of a permanent underclass in our society, without equal rights or protection under the law,” Cardinal Mahony wrote in editorial in the Washington Post. “This is a current reality our founding fathers sought arduously to avoid. As a moral matter, we should no longer tolerate a system which preys upon the vulnerability of our fellow human beings and benefits from their labor, yet fails to guarantee their basic human rights.”
“He’s a very strong promoter for the immigrants,” said Father Martin Cordero of the Diocese of Las Cruces. “Since we’re in the tri-city, he wanted to come show his support, that he’s been with us immigrants, that he’s been behind us 100 percent…He’s showing solidarity with us here.”
The Mass was held at the summit of the mountain, right beneath the 29-foot limestone statue of Jesus Christ at noon. On a side of the mountain above the altar, a framed image of Santo Toribio was held, hovering above the prayers and songs. Cardinal Mahony delivered the sermon noting the importance of the procession’s symbolism in the faith and asking for help for those on the border.
“We, too, not only have this encounter, but our lives are transformed,” he said of the people’s sacrifice and salvation in participating in the procession. “Let us keep the many thousands around the world who are in need of Christ in our hearts,” he concluded.
The Mass featured the voices of a children’s choir, accompanied by guitars and other portable instrumentation. Horacio Favela, one of the choir leaders said Cardinal Mahony’s visit had special significance because of the violence in Juarez, “Because the mass was with that purpose, to pray for the stopping of violence and things that are happening in Juarez.”
“I think that it’s a very beautiful gesture on his part,” said Roger Vega, Jr. of the Our Lady of the Valley Parish. “He wanted to add his prayers, too, for the peace in Juarez and to show his support. Because even though he’s from Los Angeles and we’re in El Paso, Catholic means ‘universal,’ it means worldwide. It means one family.”
“His participation with us is very important to us,” Father Cordero said, “especially since he’s retiring soon.” Cardinal Mahony turns 75 —the mandatory retirement age for bishops— in February.