By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Since I was ordained and installed, as the 11th bishop of Jackson way back in February, one of the steady streams of conversation has been the relationship between the Diocese of Jackson and the Diocese of Saltillo, in the State of Coahuila, Mexico. It became obvious to me that considerable cross cultural evangelization has been at work for more than 45 years, and it has touched the lives of thousands on each side of the border. One of my goals for my first year as bishop was to find a suitable time to make a pilgrimage to our friends in Christ 1,000 miles to the south. That opportunity presented itself over the Thanksgiving weekend, and the following is a snap shot of this brief venture into an amazing mission experience.
Msgr. Mike Flannery and I went to visit our inter-diocesan mission in Saltillo, Mexico on November 27th and returned on December 2nd. Msgr. Flannery had served in the Saltillo mission for three years in the early 70’s at the outset of Father Patrick Quinn’s 29 years of missionary service. The following is a summary of our activities from Msgr. Flannery. “Bishop Kopacz wanted to get to know San Miguel, and the various outreach programs sponsored by the mission. We met with the priests, catechists and volunteers and visited two ejidos (Santa Rosa and Sabanillas).
“Within the city of Saltillo we visited the seven churches sponsored by the mission. On our final night we participated in the blessing of the foundation stone of Divina Misericordia with Bishop Raul Vera, Bishop of Saltillo, and we ended the meeting enjoying dinner with Bishop Raul Vera and Father David and Father Evelio, the two Mexican priests assigned to San Miguel. Our meeting with Bishop Raul went very well. He welcomed our involvement with the mission and hoped for a continuance of cooperation in the inter-diocesan agreement as we move forward.
“Divina Misericordia is an impressive new venture that will include a whole complex consisting of a church, a home for unwed mothers, and a dormitory for students from the villages who want to attend university in Saltillo but cannot afford the housing rent. The lot is quite sizeable (100 meters by 100 meters) and has great potential for future expansion. Bishop Kopacz was enamored with San Miguel, the priests, staff, catechists and volunteers. He will share with you his impressions.”
As Msgr. Flannery indicates we enjoyed four full days of pastoral activity. Allow me to summarize some recent history in our relationship with Saltillo. Father Bennie Piovan, a retired priest from New Orleans, had been laboring in the San Miguel Mission for six years, and he and I had arranged for my pastoral visit earlier in the summer. He died suddenly in August, and his parish community of the Ascension of the Lord in La Place, Louisiana, commended him to God with abundant love and respect. Prior to Father Bennie, the priests of the Jackson and Biloxi dioceses had served the mission for 40 years. Father Patrick Quinn was the beloved good shepherd for 29 years and poured out his life in the care of the Lord’s people, especially on many remote ranchos.
Up until about six years ago countless thousands of Mississippi Catholics had journeyed to Saltillo to serve in the missions. This created a network of personal relationships that embodied in the words of Pope Francis, a culture of encounter among missionary disciples. A pipeline of prayer, generosity, and assistance flowed north and south. The mission was to serve the poor, especially those on the fringes who are easily forgotten. In light of this remarkable history Msgr. Flannery and I recognized the urgency of our visit.
First and foremost it was an opportunity to strengthen the ties that bind us together. I was able to break bread (tortillas) with Bishop Raul as Msgr. Flannery indicated, and to meet the key leadership throughout the San Miguel Mission. For Msgr. Flannery it was an opportunity also to meet the leadership of this generation, and to rekindle older bonds that were forged more than 40 years ago. Many inspiring liturgies later, many sumptuous meals following most of the liturgies, and many miles off the beaten paths including winding city streets, Msgr. Flannery and I could say that we had the smell of the sheep, in the words of Pope Francis, and the lay of the land.
Our mission was to ascertain the degree to which the current leadership in the San Miguel Mission was fostering the vision of Father Quinn and the vision of countless thousands who journeyed from Mississippi to the mission, and/or supported it through prayer and generosity. This vision is articulated in a just published book in testimony to Father Quinn written by Jesus Alberto Salas Cortes. Early in his ministry, when people in town began to murmur that he was spending too much time out in the boondocks, he replied that “he had come to Saltillo to serve the people of the ranchos, and that he was not concerned about the criticism and complaints that this provoked. Thus he dedicated the greater part of his time visiting the ranchos, where he built chapels with the assistance of the people of the Diocese of Jackson.
As Msgr. Flannery indicated in his summary of our pilgrimage, we experienced firsthand the dedication of the current leadership, and the faithful development of Father Quinn’s dream. Women and men, priests and religious are working together to build upon that vision. I was edified, humbled and inspired to experience so much in a brief period of time, and I want to assure you that our support for the mission going forward will carry on the legacy. It is sad that the reality in Mexico is far too dangerous for mission trips, and that neither Biloxi nor Jackson is able to release a priest for service. But we can remain active for the foreseeable future through prayer and generosity, as well as through pastoral visits. Through our enhanced diocesan website and communication network we will be able to bring our mission family very close to home on a regular basis.
In summary, along with praying, eating and conversing, I baked my first tortilla, ladled cement for the cornerstone of Divine Mercy, and bounced along rutted roads for hours. My first pilgrimage to our beloved mission will not be my last.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
In Advent faith and hope, Come Lord Jesus.
(Editor’s note: see related story on page 16)
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz