CIUDAD JUAREZ, Chihuahua — Pope Francis’ most controversial words about the U.S.-Mexican border came just hours after leaving Mexico, when the pontiff blasted the idea of building a border wall as unchristian, triggering a bizarro feud with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel,” Francis said during an inflight press conference on his way back to Rome.
Trump, who has campaigned tirelessly on the idea of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, quickly fired back at the pope from a rally in South Carolina. “I like the Pope unless the Pope doesn’t like me —then I don’t like the Pope,” Trump reportedly said.
Trump’s campaign then released an even crazier statement saying: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.”
Trump’s headline grab comes the morning after tens of thousands of Mexicans gathered along the U.S. border Wednesday evening to witness Pope Francis stand at the southern bank of the Rio Grande and pay his respects to emigrants who risk everything in search of a better life in Los Estados Unidos.
“A crossing, a path filled with terrible injustices: enslaved, kidnapped, extorsioned, many of our brothers are used by the human trafficking business,” the pope said of the perils of the border. “We can’t deny this human crisis… No more death and exploitation!”
“There’s always time to change, there’s always an exit, always an opportunity, there’s always time to implore the mercy of our Father,” the Catholic leader said.
Before mass Francis led a silent prayer next to a giant black cross facing the river that divides two countries.
On the U.S. side, in El Paso, Texas, a crowd pressed up against the border fence to catch a glimpse of the pope’s first binational mass. U.S. border patrol agents watched the proceedings carefully.
Nearby, in El Paso’s Sun Bowl stadium, thousands more gathered to watch a live broadcast of the mass, in which Francis delivered powerful words about the plight of Central American and Mexican emigrants seeking to cross to “the other side.”
Francis said tears can break down border barriers and “open the conversation” between neighboring nations.
The pontiff’s words and visit to the border region were deeply moving to the residents of Ciudad Juárez, a city that several years ago was stigmatized as the murder capital of the world. The pope did not mince his words when denouncing the violence, abuse and injustice that so many have suffered at the border.
“Injustice radicalizes the youth,” Francis said. “They become cannon fodder, persecuted and threatened when they try to leave the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs. And what can we say about so many women who have been unjustly deprived of their lives!”
Many of the Catholic faithful in attendance were emotional and bordering on exhaustion after waiting for the pope for 10 hours in the blistering sun. Many in the back sections of the event fainted.
“I’m okay,” cried an older woman, who refused to be led away by paramedics after she became dehydrated and started vomiting into a plastic cup.
This obsession to catch a glimpse of Francis didn’t always bring out the best Christian behavior in people. Some attendees fought to get into the front row sections, pushing and shoving others to cut their way in. The weak might one day inherit the earth, but they weren’t getting front row seats to the pope’s mass in Juárez. Volunteers and cops acted like club bouncers guarding these ‘heavenly’ seats.
And in typical elitist fashion, the city’s VIP guests were given preferential seating, just in front of those who came in wheelchairs.
But once folks got settled, they began to behave themselves better. People shared water and homemade sandwiches and burritos, and some of the people with special needs were allowed to move up front where they could see.
Even those who had fought over chairs turned to each other to shake hands amicably once Pope Francis said: Peace be with you.
The pope’s arrival was clearly a big deal to a long-suffering community.
“His presence will lift our faith,” David Perez, a 20-year-old college student who had been waiting for Francis since 9 a.m., told me. “He’ll give us more confidence in ourselves…words can change the way you think.”
“This pope has a lot of spark,” added Alfredo Fierro, a state cop deployed to the event since 6 a.m.
The pope showed that spark in his criticism as well as his call to prayer.
Prior to the mass, Francis visited a jail where he said prison conditions are a symptom of societal problems. “Divine forgiveness reminds us that prisons are a symptom of who we are as a society; they’re a symptom in many cases of silence, of omissions caused by a culture of discard. They’re a symptom of a culture that has stopped betting on life, of a society that little by little is abandoning its children.”
Francis also had some tough words for the city’s private sector, which is notoriously exploitative of maquiladora workers.
“What does Mexico want to leave to its children? Does it want to leave a memory of exploitation, insufficient salaries, work harassment, or the trafficking of slave labor?”
The pope, however, mixed criticism with a message of reconciliation. And he ended his Mexico visit on a high note.
“The night may seem huge and very dark,” the pontiff said on the edge of the U.S.-Mexico border. “But during these days I was able to confirm that in the [Mexican] people there are many lights that announce hope.”
And for a city that’s stumbled in the dark shadows of violence, the pope’s words come as further encouragement to those beacons in the night.