By Wallice J. de la Vega
EL PASO, Texas (CNS) — By the time the action started at the Sun Bowl Stadium Feb. 17 for the simulcast of Pope Francis’ Mass from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, scarcely a few hundred people had arrived.
But by the time the sun was setting over the western stands, the crowd had peaked at more than 30,000 and settled down for the solemnity of the Mass. Later, many were heading home dancing or singing, or both.
The celebration, “Two Nations, One Faith” was an event hosted by Catholic Extension and jointly coordinated with the Diocese of El Paso. It was held simultaneously with the Mass celebrated by the pope at the Juarez fairgrounds.
Prior to the Mass, in a ceremony at the Rio Grande, he blessed immigrants, church officials, migrants, refugees, immigration activists and victims of violence gathered at a levee across the river in the U.S.
Another blessing ceremony of the crowd took place at the Sun Bowl, using holy water drawn from the river and blessed by Pope Francis. A group of “VIP children,” originally scheduled to be at the river ceremony but moved to the Sun Bowl because of lack of space, were recognized and participated in the blessing.
The artistic lineup kept the slowly swelling crowd cheering and enjoying the wide variety of entertainment presented.
Tony Melendez, renowned Nicaraguan singer-guitarist had the tough spot of starting the show and enduring the afternoon’s harshest heat. Melendez — born without arms — has performed for previous popes; his embrace by St. John Paul II electrified an audience during the pontiff’s 1987 papal visit to Los Angeles.
Country star Collin Raye, together with Andrea Thomas “and a few good friends” followed with a wide variety of rock and gospel songs. Thomas’ rendition of “Ave Maria” captured the silent attention of the crowd.
Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, took time at the microphone to thank everyone present and the sponsors of the event. He used an introductory video to illustrate the wide range of places where his organization serves needy families.
Catholic Extension, a Chicago-based papal society that supports under-resourced dioceses in the U.S., has been a partner to the Diocese of El Paso for the organization’s entire 110-year history. It has provided assistance to the U.S. dioceses along the border totaling more than $122 million in today’s dollars.
Then the on-stage heat kicked-in. Father Tony Ricard, well known for youth and young adult ministries in the New Orleans Archdiocese, brought his spicy mix of stand-up comedy, dance steps and fiery preaching. He kept the audience laughing about 15 minutes, then intertwined his jokes with Gospel messages and the crowd responded accordingly.
“I know every one of you has someone you just can’t stand,” he said. “But hey, you can’t get mercy if you don’t give mercy, so use that one person and be what the Holy Father wants you to be.”
Last in the program was the El Paso Diocesan Choir, which is part vocal group and part orchestra and whose repertoire was part mariachi and part Afro-Caribbean. The musical highlight of the event, however, turned out to be 7-year old singer Cloe Kolar, daughter of choir director Peter Kolar. She debuted the song “Querido Papa Francisco” (Dear Pope Francis), composed by her father for the occasion.
Agostino Chauro, who lives in Juarez and frequently visits his daughter and grandchildren in El Paso, preferred to come to the Sun Bowl to see Pope Francis.
“I am very happy to be here,” he told Catholic News Service. “I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to see the pope, but if I would have gone to see him in Juarez, I would not have seen him this clear and so comfortably.”
The attendance for “Two Nations, One Faith” was considered a success, surpassing the minimum of 25,000 desired by diocesan officials.
Angela D’Antonio, vice president of marketing and communications at Catholic Extension, told CNS her organization was satisfied, too, by the turnout. “Yes, we are thrilled that so many thousands of the faithful came out today to this wonderful event,” she said.