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Local Priest In City Notorious For Crime Reacts To Pope Francis' Visit To Mexico


In other news today, 300,000 Mexicans lined up for hours to celebrate mass with Pope Francis in a hard-scrabble area outside Mexico City. He urged Mexicans to make their country a land of opportunity.


POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "A land where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work," he said. On Wednesday, the pope travels to another Mexican city which has become, for many, a symbol of rampant crime and grinding poverty. He's heading to Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, Texas. Among the crowds welcoming him will be Father Kevin Mullins. He was born in Australia, but he's served this community for 15 years, and I asked him to tell me about his parishioners.

KEVIN MULLINS: We live in the - what's called a colonia. It's a slum parish on the western side of Ciudad Juarez. And most of the people here would work in the large factories which are found here in Ciudad Juarez, a very poor area. The people are very wonderful people - very noble, very brave - and I'm most privileged to be the priest here for the last, I think it's 15-and-a-half years now.

MARTIN: Fifteen-and-a-half. So how are people reacting to the visit? Is there a particular message that people are hoping for?

MULLINS: Well, I was just talking to about 50 people this morning in our Saturday morning Bible study, and I asked them the same question you're asking me, Michel, that - and people are very happy. They're delighted that the pope would come to Ciudad Juarez. It's an infamous city because of the killing that's taken place here but people here, they're hoping for blessings and - these blessings of love and for all the people of Juarez.

MARTIN: You know, it may be an odd question, but I'm wondering whether people feel safe to come out. I mean, we hear so often, you know, on this side of the border about gatherings like birthday parties...

MULLINS: ...Sure...

MARTIN: ...Being disrupted by violence, and sometimes people think it isn't even - they don't even know necessarily who the target is. And I was wondering if people - are they comfortable to come out to a big public event like this?

MULLINS: I would say so because there's been a change, Michel, in the last, let me say, two years, two-and-a-half years. The kill rate, of course, is still very high of 32 murders a month, but that's a lot less than the 320 a month we had in the year 2010. And I believe that there's a greater sense of optimism amongst the population here in Juarez. We don't expect anything dire to happen to us or to anybody during the pope's visit.

MARTIN: I'm told you've experienced this yourself firsthand, this kind of - obviously, thankfully, you're here to tell us about it. But do you mind telling us about some of the things that you have experienced?

MULLINS: Sure. In 2008, the violence started approximately the month of April. And one of the fathers of one of the girls in our confirmation group, he was shot in the head one afternoon and the police stopped his sons from chasing the killers, which was very disconcerting for us. The next day at mass, a group of people approached me and asked me to pray for them. The wife told me that she had her husband's body, but she couldn't find his head. I remember at the time, it was very shocking. And then later on - as a priest, we pray for the dead and the dying, so I often gave what's called or used to be called the last rites to people who had been executed in the street, and there was many, many instances of that. I remember those days, those instances of violence very clearly - very vividly remain in my memory.

MARTIN: What do you see as your role in the community at a time like this? And the church - frankly, what is the church's role in all of this?

MULLINS: I think that the church has a moral obligation to speak out against the violence, and to speak out in favor of human life and the fact that all our lives are a treasure from - a gift from God. During the worst of the violence, a bishop, Don Renato, he invited us all to make of our parishes places where people could go there, be safe. And I believe that in the main, we've been able to do that.

MARTIN: I know I've been asking about how the - your parishioners feel about the pope's visit. Do you mind if I ask you? How are you?

MULLINS: I'm delighted. It'll be a long day. There'll be - it's going to be a hot, sunny day, but I've never seen the pope. I look forward to listening to him, and I certainly admire him. He's a very compassionate person, and I think he's the right man at the right time.

MARTIN: That was Father Kevin Mullins. He serves in the Juarez Diocese. He spoke to us from Juarez, Mexico. Father Kevin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MULLINS: My pleasure, my pleasure, Michel. God bless, and take care of yourself. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.