By Rhina Guidos
WASHINGTON — San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller was still tending to the pain of the community of Uvalde, Texas, reeling from a mass school shooting that in May left 19 children and their two teachers dead, when another tragedy landed on the doorstep of his Texas diocese.
“The office had already closed, but I heard about it and went straight to a hospital,” the archbishop said in a July 8 interview with Catholic News Service, recalling the evening in late June he heard about a group of migrants found dead and dying inside a sweltering trailer near San Antonio. They were being smuggled into the U.S.
At first, it was hard to know whether anyone had survived the more than 100-degree temperatures inside the trailer carrying them, but if they did, the prelate figured he’d find them at one of the area hospitals and he went looking for them.
The death toll in that incident would eventually reach 53. A little more than a dozen people, including several children, survived.
During a recent visit with a survivor who remains in the hospital, the prelate found out about the man’s approaching birthday. Because he had no one to celebrate with, the archbishop gathered a group of migrants that Catholic Charities in San Antonio was helping to mark the occasion and they observed the man’s birthday, a second chance at life, with a party and a cake.
He admitted that it has been tiring. “Cansancio,” he said in Spanish. The days have been full of visits: to victims, survivors, their families and community members who are suffering. In between, he has been presiding over one funeral after the other.
In dealing with back-to-back events of such great magnitude, the archdiocesan community has been at his side to respond to those suffering in their midst.
Though the community at large has suffered, to be sure, “the ones who lived through (the tragedies) are the ones who suffered the most,” said the archbishop, recalling a harrowing account from one of the survivors he visited.
“He’s 21, or 22, and he was inside the trailer, which had no air conditioning, not even a window … they didn’t have water and they didn’t have food,” the young man told the archbishop.
The conditions were so terrible that they had no option but to “perform their physical needs” in the space they had carved out for themselves.
“There came a time when he said that he felt that his skin was, like wrinkling, as if they were burning, as if they were inside an oven,” the archbishop said. “Then, the desperation began.”
The migrant told the archbishop that some in the group began moving toward the center of the trailer. Sensing that perhaps an end to their journey on this earth was near, some grabbed their small Bibles, rosaries and prayer cards with the image of Jesus and of various saints, and they began to pray.
“Lord, have mercy on us. Good Father, hear us. Take care of our families. Protect them,'” they prayed, and even at the end, Archbishop García-Siller said, their concern was for others, their families. Their natural inclination was to draw closer to God instead of cursing him for their plight, he said.
Slowly, they started collapsing, fading, the survivor told him. Those who were still conscious “didn’t know if it was just fainting or if it was death,” Archbishop García-Siller said.
It showed, he said, a “natural inclination from within, of trusting oneself to God, to express yourself (to that God)” that many in Latin America have, even within a variety of faith traditions, he said.
He has faced criticism for humanizing the migrants in the trailer.
“Just because he’s hurt sneaking across the border doesn’t mean he gets to stay,” one Twitter user told the archbishop after he tweeted about the survivor’s phone call with his mother.
But he’s been dealing with detractors for a while, and they increased when he called for limits on high-powered weapons, such as the ones used to kill the children at the school in Uvalde.
“Stay in your lane,” Twitter user @ProLife4U2 told him.
“We receive negative vibes” at the archdiocese, he said. “But it’s clear to us that you don’t fight evil with evil. In front of evil, only goodness prevails. … We do what we do for the people, for the glory of God toward his creation. So, what’s negative sometimes causes wounds but wounds can purify us to continue to love and accept others.”
And sometimes it helps to recognize one’s errors, too, he said.
He credits the Vatican-directed process of listening sessions, sometimes referred to as the synod listening sessions, meant to generate collaboration in the Catholic Church, for helping him and others in the San Antonio archdiocese face this year’s tragedies.
“Something that has impressed me a lot is the pope’s call to synodality, to work together, which has made us all responsible for everything. We had already been working on it for a year, a year and a half, so during these circumstances (of the shooting and the plight of the trailer victims), I have been able to see how valuable it is,” he told CNS.
“In this spirit of collaboration,” which synodality calls for, “it is no longer about what I have lived through … it is our experience, our time, our abilities and, also, our fatigue, our frustrations, our pain,” said Archbishop García-Siller, and it is God moving the community to act with a spirit of faith, “it is God moving all of this among us.”
Many brother bishops with whom he recently gathered for a retreat in June in San Diego, also expressed their support, their condolences, including those whose club he’s joined: bishops dealing with mass casualties in their dioceses.
There’s a sense of shame each time one picks up the phone to call the other to offer condolences for the latest mass shooting or tragedy in their respective diocese, particularly because there are solutions but little political will for the country to resolve them, he said.
“It’s a shame that we need to be dealing with this on a regular basis.”