- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - While Pope Francis didn’t step foot in El Paso on Wednesday, his presence was widely felt across the West Texas city, and the pontiff even paused during his Mass in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between the two border communities.

Thousands of people from El Paso as well as other parts of the U.S. made the short trip over the bridges that link the cities to go to an outdoor Mass that was attended by more than 200,000 people and capped Francis’ visit to Mexico. About 30,000 others watched a livestream from the Sun Bowl stadium at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Before the start of his Mass, Francis walked up a specially built platform next to the Rio Grande, which separates the two countries. He made the sign of the cross and blessed a group of about 500 people, including immigrants and refugees, a few yards away on the U.S. side They cheered enthusiastically when they saw the pope. Many of the immigrants wore T-shirts with pictures of Francis and held religious figurines in their hands.

Francis also offered a silent prayer for the thousands of immigrants who have died while trying to reach the U.S.

“I’m overcome by emotion, a lot of emotion. I’ll fall apart if talk more,” Angelica Ortiz, one of the immigrants who was invited to be on the U.S. side and witness the pope’s prayer, said in Spanish. Ortiz, who fled Juarez after drug traffickers threatened her son, now lives in El Paso after being granted asylum with the help of a local migrant assistance group.

At the stadium, people wildly applauded when Francis thanked “brothers and sisters from El Paso for making us feel like one family and the same Christian community.”

“Thanks to the help of technology, we can pray, sing and celebrate together this merciful love which the Lord gives us, and which no frontier can prevent us from sharing,” he said in Spanish.

Maria Delgado, who watched the Mass from the stadium with her two daughters and sons, said the event brought her to tears.

“To have him so close, it’s almost a part of spiritual closeness,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, religious leaders and migrants rights advocates said during a news conference in El Paso that the pope’s prayer for immigrants would send a message that’s not political but humanitarian.

“Because something has political dimensions, it doesn’t mean that it does not also have moral dimensions, and it is the moral dimensions that our holy father will be addressing,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

One activist group, the Border Network for Human Rights, placed a sign that read “#ImmigrantLivesMatter” on a building on the U.S. side near the Mass.

Luis Trillo, one of the pedestrians who chose to walk across the Bridge of the Americas and see the Mass in person, did so despite pain from arthritis in his legs. The elderly man said he was excited to hear the pope’s blessing at the Mass.

Many who saw the Mass from the Sun Bowl arrived well ahead of when its doors opened at noon.

El Paso resident Andrea Herrera said she and her parents had been at the stadium since 7:30 a.m. to tailgate, decorate candles, eat menudo - a traditional Mexican soup - and pray.

“This is our own pope-a-palooza,” she said, referring to the popular Lollapalooza music festival.

Fellow El Paso resident Claudia Saucedo, who came with her husband and six children to the stadium, said Francis “brings hope to the people. He’s the closet spiritual person to God here on Earth.”

___

Videojournalist John L. Mone and photographer Eric Gay in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.

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