Why Peñitas, in a colonia known as Pueblo de Palmas? Why such a remote area along the U.S.-Mexico border where many in our own Rio Grande Valley here in South Texas have never visited? And why would the Holy Father send a message to the people of a rural area that some say is insignificant?

These are questions Father Michael Montoya, a Missionary of Jesus priest, who is pastor of St. Anne Quasi-Parish in Peñitas, Texas and its three missionary churches, continues to hear as he finalizes plans for a World Youth Encounter/Encuentro Mundial de los Jovenes on July 26. This local celebration, which coincides with World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland started off as an idea to help the young people in one of the poorest areas in the country see how they are connected with the Church and young people from around the world.

Rev. Michael Montoya
The Rev. Michael Montoya

Given the poverty levels in the community and their immigration status, it is impossible for most to travel. In Peñitas, explains Father Montoya, traveling even from their homes to church comes with risk. Some fear the real danger that if they are pulled over for even a minor driving infraction, they could be deported. Father Montoya points to what he refers to as a “military presence” in the area. There is a no shortage of local police, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, U.S. border patrol agents and National Guard patrolling the area located just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s a constant reminder to the people that something is not right. We live so close to the wall that divides families, it affects self-identity. All the images we receive from the outside are negative. It’s always connected to the border, always connected to the things we cannot do,” says Father Montoya.

Add to this the poverty and lack of basic infrastructure in some neighborhoods that do not even have sewage and water lines. “There are many circumstances,” says Father Montoya “that make it difficult for the people. They think they are forgotten.”

But they are not forgotten. Today they are celebrating after learning that the Holy Father has prepared a personal message for the youth of the diocese, specifically for the youth who will be attending the Encuentro Mundial de los Jovenes at St. Anne Church in Peñitas.

“The parish of St. Anne is beyond happy. Things like this don’t happen to a place like Peñitas,” says Father Montoya. “The pope is sending a message to us! I think that is proof enough, that the love of the Church for our poor people is really palpable, it’s real.”

So even before they hear the message, the community is celebrating the fact that a message is on its way, that the Holy Father took the time to think of them.

As Father Montoya stressed, the idea of hosting the encuentro in Peñitas is to help the people witness that “the mercy of God knows no limits within a Church that knows no borders,” “that it reaches even the remotest part of the world. We don’t have to be in the center of power to be recognized by the Church.”

Forgetting perhaps, that the infant Jesus chose to be born in the small town of Bethlehem and not a city center, many doubted that such an event like the encuentro could happen in such an “out of the way” place. The people of Peñitas and surrounding communities proved otherwise. “Not everyone can travel to Poland for World Youth Day,” explains Father Montoya, “but we believe that even in our area, a profound and meaningful encounter with the world’s youth can be organized.”

“It’s a re-imagining,” says Father Montoya, “of who we are. We are not defined by the border, we are defined by our culture and by our faith.”

This is truly a testament that the mercy of God knows no limits. It should also serve as a reminder to each of us that no matter where God places us, no matter where we stand in the world, we each matter and must do what we can to foster a “culture of encounter.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows children playing soccer in a park in Pueblo de Palmas, a colonia north of Peñitas, Texas. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)