More than 350 people filled San Fernando Cathedral for a Sunday afternoon Memorial Mass honoring 10 migrants who died on the road from Laredo to San Antonio, imprisoned in the back of an airless tractor-trailer used by human smugglers.
The Mass began with a procession through the front doors of San Fernando led by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, who paused in the cathedral nave before a tall crucifix where he lit 10 red candles, one for each lost migrant.
The archbishop slowly circled the crucifix, lifting an incense thurible to the statue of Jesus on the cross. A wicker basket at his feet contained small handwritten cards bearing the names of other lost migrants remembered this day by those who came to worship and join in the memorial.
This was not an ordinary Sunday Mass. This was a Mass filled with symbolism, song, lament, and an emotional, sometimes thunderous homily delivered by the archbishop, the head of the Catholic Church in the San Antonio Archdiocese and a native of the central Mexican city of San Luis Potosí.
The victims came from Mexico and Guatemala, many from the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, only 100 miles from García-Siller’s hometown.
“May God have mercy on those who died, and on those who caused their deaths and so much pain and suffering,” García-Siller said at the start of the Mass. “May they beg for mercy.”
“Señor, ten piedad. Cristo, ten piedad,” attendees sang in response. “God, be merciful. Christ, be merciful.”
Sunday’s Mass for 10 migrants and the terrible death by heat and asphyxiation they suffered in a dark, airless trailer stuffed with as many as 100 helpless people also was a Mass for all the migrants lost in other ways while crossing the border from Mexico: migrants who died at the hands of their smugglers or corrupt law enforcement; migrants who drowned crossing the Rio Grande; migrants who expired in the arid desert, and increasingly, those found locked inside unventilated trailers.
García-Siller drew an ever larger circle, lamenting the plight of Middle Eastern and African refugees, and the victims of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. It was a Mass, he said, “for the many, many people searching for a better life in so many places in the world, but today, particularly for those who have died crossing our border.”
The archbishop left his miter with an acolyte before mounting the pulpit to deliver an emotional homily in two languages, his voice rising again and again in an otherwise silent sanctuary.
“All these things also happen here,” he said of a world engulfed in violence and displacement. “It is good to be sad about it. It is not okay to believe a life doesn’t mean anything.”
Moving between Spanish and English, García-Siller exhorted those present to reject “political slogans, those who tell you, ‘Buy that, drink this. Vote this, vote that.’ In this time of crisis we must search for God’s kingdom and justice. This is not easy in the world today. We are seduced by riches, by power, by pleasure.
“How are we to live the Gospel’s lessons in our daily lives?” the archbishop asked. “To love someone who doesn’t look like everyone else is not easy. Like the young King Solomon, we pray for the wisdom of God and we pray for those who have the power over other people’s lives to do what is right and to not allow harm to come in other people’s lives.”
It sounded like a message meant for an audience not present Sunday, a message intended to reach elected officials so divided by issues of race, immigration, and borders.
As he finished, García-Siller walked back down to the flickering candles and the crucifix and spontaneously began to call up individuals from their pews, pointing and beckoning to surprised invitees. Here, an old man bent over by age. There, a young woman. In the back, a young, bearded man, and so on, until 10 people stood with him before the cross.
Each individual picked up one of the 10 candles and stood witness.
“Each one of you take one of these 10 candles,” García-Siller said in what became an extraordinary moment of intimacy in the center of the great historic cathedral. “You hold in your hands a candle for each one of the migrants killed last week. May the Lord give us wisdom and may we take care of one another and treat one another with respect.”
Long lines formed for Communion amid more singing. People clasped the hands of their neighbors in the pews, exchanging the ritual gift of peace.
“May peace reign in your hearts. When I meet with the families of those who died I will bring them your message of peace,” García-Siller said afterwards.
Then, drawing farther from the altar and closer to the pews, he stood in front of the 10 candles to offer some final words before concluding the 90-minute Mass.
“If there is something, anything I can do as your shepherd, please tell me. We need to break the silence.”
The archbishop then led a procession out of San Fernando Cathedral, stopping to offer blessings along the way. Afterwards a long line of worshippers patiently awaited their turn to greet García-Siller individually under a hot afternoon sun in Main Plaza. For nearly 30 minutes, the people came, each one receiving an embrace or quiet word of hope.