'We Pray for Hope and Courage'

In response to the violence gripping the region, Catholics along the Mexican border of south Texas are turning to The Divine Mercy message and devotion.

"The danger, the violence, the tragic events have increased tremendously. People are frightened," said Fr. Eduardo Ortega, rector of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle National Shrine, in San Juan, Texas. "The Divine Mercy is at the center of our lives here at the basilica this year."

Located a few miles from the Mexican border, the basilica initiated an intercessory prayer and fasting campaign that began on Good Friday with the commencement of the Divine Mercy Novena. The campaign will extend through Divine Mercy Sunday, April 19. The Most Reverend Raymundo J. Peña, fifth bishop of Brownsville, Texas, will take part in the campaign.

Shrines to Saint Death?
All this comes at a particularly perilous time along the border, where a violent and thriving illegal drug trade has intertwined with what officials call a death cult.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as the Mexican government has destroyed dozens of makeshift public shrines to the controversial religious icon Santa Muerte ("Saint Death" or "Holy Death"). Not recognized by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte has been linked as the patron of Mexico's powerful drug clans. Statues of Santa Muerte, depicted as a robe-covered Grim Reaper, have been found in houses of drug traffickers.

An April 11 report by Reuters says Santa Muerte's "followers number up to 5 million, according to the cult's high priest David Romo, ranging from police and politicians to kidnappers and gangsters who are said to ask her for protection before setting out on hits."

An April 3 article in The Times of London, reports, "At a time when death by beheading is not uncommon, narcos turn to Santa Muerte to implore protection and 'a good death.'"

The Times article quotes the Bishop of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the Right Rev. Humberto Robles Cotas, who explains that the Santa Muerte cult reflects "the tremendous fear of death in contemporary society. All of us, absolutely all of us need an interior sense of security, but people who have pushed God out of the picture will cling to anything to feel secure and are clinging to this cult to get that sense of security."

Crude shrines to Santa Muerte have cropped up along highways and roads along the border towns of Mexico. The destruction of the shrines by the Mexican government prompted a call last month from Santa Muerte devotees for a "holy war" against the government and the Catholic Church, according to news reports.

'We Need The Divine Mercy'
"We don't know what's going to happen," says Fr. Ortega. "We don't know what they mean by 'holy war.' These people are very powerful people. Some of them are involved in drug trafficking, and they worship this idol that is nothing more than a satanic cult."

"So more than ever," continues Fr. Ortega, "we need The Divine Mercy."

On Divine Mercy Sunday weekend, a "Texas-size" image of The Divine Mercy - 40-feet tall by 30-feet wide - will be displayed on the grounds of the basilica, which expects more than 20,000 pilgrims from both sides of the border. Mother of Mercy Messengers (MOMM) and the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy's founder, Dr. Bryan Thatcher, will give presentations on April 16 at the basilica. Both MOMM and EADM are apostolates of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

"This is what it's all about. This is why we have The Divine Mercy," says Joan Maroney, who, with her husband, Dave, run MOMM, which is headquartered in Texas.

This is the first year the basilica will host a special Divine Mercy Sunday celebration. Father Ortega says the he is already seeing the fruits of God's mercy even before the prayer and fasting campaign begins.

Indeed, a billboard with the image of The Divine Mercy and the inscription "Jesus, I trust in You!" was recently posted along Highway 83, which runs alongside the grounds of the basilica. The billboard company has received calls from people with positive comments.

"One lady called and said how she was very angry and having a bad day until she saw the billboard," says Joan. "And by the time she got to her destination a few miles down the road, she said she was a changed person. She was completely at peace. She called the sign company to tell them."

Focussed on The Image
This comes as no surprise to Joan.

"The Lord told St. Faustina, 'I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world'" (Diary of St. Faustina, 47)," Joan notes. "The image invites us to keep focused on Jesus. At a time when we worry about drug lords, we need to turn to the One True Lord. He'll fight all the other lords. That's all we can do. The only way we're going to solve the problems of the world and bring peace is through The Divine Mercy."

Father Ortega, who as a young boy in Mexico learned about the message of The Divine Mercy through his mother, said he sees the basilica's Divine Mercy prayer and fasting campaign as "very providential."

Organizers at the basilica say the 40-foot image of The Divine Mercy, which will be draped on an outside wall of the basilica, will serve as an invitation to trust Jesus, particularly in these turbulent times.

"We know that Jesus Christ, through that image, is going to touch a lot of people," Fr. Ortega says. "Danger and violent and tragic events along the border - I think these things are opening people's hearts to receive the message of The Divine Mercy."

"Around the world the message and devotion of The Divine Mercy is changing hearts and promoting conversion," Fr. Ortega continues. "Here on the border, as we turn to The Divine Mercy, we pray for hope and courage. Christ is the solution. Christ comes to bring order and justice. It's very powerful what this devotion is capable of providing."

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