What Pope Francis' visit means for Texas

Photo by REUTERS/Mexico Presidency

As Pope Francis visits Mexico this week, his message should resonate across the border and throughout the great state of Texas. We have so much to learn from the Pope's guidance, particularly around education, health care and immigration.

Pope Francis has decreed 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy. With all the unpleasant politics and xenophobia rampant in Texas today, our state leaders could stand to be more merciful. Indeed, under-funding public education, refusing federal health care programs and discriminating against immigrants violate religious teachings and contradict Texas' values.

Continuing the Pope's focus on those who struggle and yearn for opportunity, his visit on Wednesday to Ciudad Juárez will include stops at a prison and at a gathering of business leaders and workers. Shifting resources from incarcerating people to training them for the jobs of the future should be an equally important conversation on this side of the border. Education has always been the best tool to combat poverty and realize one's true potential, and Texas can do much more to make children’s learning a priority.

For nearly 100 years, the Benedictine Sisters have relied on our faith to advocate for the well-being of all Texans. We have responded to the needs of those we serve through our ministries in the areas of spirituality, hospitality, education, peace, justice, health care and pastoral care. And more than 30 years ago, we recognized that government plays a role in fighting poverty and improving lives, which is why we founded what has become the venerable Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Today, we need leaders who understand the facts and believe in justice, compassion, charity and human dignity. Pope Francis' message that immigrants deserve dignity is a timely one. I am disheartened by state leaders who have tried to shun refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Having visited one of the immigrant detention centers for women and children in South Texas — helping with a communion service and meeting with detained women — the heartbreaking stories I have heard and powerful faith I have witnessed will remain with me. It's painful to think how they have been treated in Texas.

I am hopeful, however, about local efforts to welcome those in need. In San Antonio, the Interfaith Welcoming Committee formed in response to the needs of the women and children, including their release from the detention centers in South Texas. Most big city mayors in Texas have publicly called for welcoming immigrants and refugees. This week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will host a regional meeting of the White House Task Force on New Americans, where leaders will discuss ways Texas can be more welcoming.

Our culture and economy benefit greatly from immigrants, and we must welcome them — not marginalize them — in our actions and our public policies. Small businesses owned by immigrants, for example, contributed $4.4 billion in earnings to the Texas economy in 2011.

One major way our leaders can heed the Pope's message to heal and help others is by expanding access to health care. We have the highest rate of uninsured people in the country; in a state this great, that is inexcusable. Accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid would cover working poor adults and protect hundreds of thousands from medical bankruptcy while helping countless families work their way out of poverty.

There is a long history of religious leaders calling for an increase in access to health care, including here in Texas. Last year, the Texas Conference of Bishops sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Joe Straus asking them to accept federal funds to extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 1.3 million Texans.

The bishops said their appeal was "guided by their belief that achieving affordable and accessible health care coverage for all stems from God's precepts about the fundamental right to life and dignity." With Pope Francis at our border, it's time to renew our call on state leaders to close the health care coverage gap.

Eventually, Pope Francis will return to the Vatican and the media frenzy will subside, but his message of mercy and compassion should inspire us to keep fighting for all Texans. Our state can be a beacon for justice and opportunity. Let's make Texas the best state for hard-working people and their families, regardless of background.

Sister Bernadine Reyes

Prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas

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