HEAVEN and hell co-exist quite visibly in the Mexican parish of Columban Missionary priest Fr Kevin Mullins.
During a conversation, the priest spoke of funeral parties being broken up by gun battles, injured people dragged from ambulances and shot, operating theatres with bullet-proof glass, and joining in prayers with families of three of his parishioners who were stoned to death in a gully not far from his church.
For it is Fr Mullins’ privilege – and ongoing source of personal danger – to minister to the Corpus Christi parish in the city of Ciudad Juarez, which has become one of the world’s most violent cities as a result of the Drug Wars which have engulfed Mexico.
The northern frontier of Fr Mullins’ parish is on the US-Mexican border, a major point of entry for drugs to the United States.
About 1605 people were executed last year in the city and more than 700 had already been killed in 2009 when I spoke with the 55-year-old priest who spent much of his childhood in outback Queensland.
This number now stands at 1200, according to a newspaper report last month which described Ciudad Juarez as “the epicentre of Mexico’s spiralling drug cartel violence”.
The report revealed gunmen had taken to executing people in drug treatment clinics in the city, killing 28 people in this way through the month of September.
The more horrific the killing the better, in the twisted logic of these gangs as each seeks to outdo the other in sowing terror.
Fr Mullins spoke further of the three parishioners who had been stoned to death at the same time, giving some indication of the ties that bind him to this tortured community.
“They were only young men and I knew two – Mario and Lalo, both 21 – very well,” he said.
“Some days after the funeral my Columban colleague Fr Denis O’Mara and I accompanied the immediate families and friends of the dead.
“We celebrated an outdoor Mass next to the now infamous gully for the repose of the souls of the dead men.
“We felt it was important to bring the symbols of Christ’s love for us to such a place and to console their parents and friends.”
But nothing, not even a funeral Mass is sacred to the drug gangs.
“I’ve always got a sense of relief when a victim’s family notifies me that they’ll not be having a funeral in church but out in the bush,” Fr Mullins said.
He speaks of a funeral Mass in the neighbouring parish of Sts Peter and Paul where a mother was shot and killed at the funeral of her son.
“The poor parish priest was forced to scamper out, at times crawling on his belly to the hearse,” he said.
“‘Get going quick’, he told them, ‘or we’ll all be shot!'”
Yet in this most seemingly inhospitable of terrains, Fr Mullins’ perseverance is bearing fruit.
Nine years ago when he arrived, the parish was priestless with about 30 people in the faith community. Now active parishioners number in the hundreds.
Often this close friendship and sense of belonging to a community is what keeps Fr Mullins going.
“I admit the danger occasionally tempts me to leave,” he said.
“But a missionary priest tends to form close bonds with his people … so it’s not faith alone that keeps you going sometimes, but the great bond you form with the people.
“Given this connection, I’m glad to be able to walk alongside these people as a Catholic priest and accompany them in their most tragic moments such as losing children through executions.
“In times like this I’m glad the Church has something to offer these people; something it can say during these frequent atrocities.”
It’s also the camaraderie with other Columbans which keeps him going.
Asked when he was ordained he says, “1978, the same year as Burleigh Heads parish priest Paddy Molony”.
On the day The Catholic Leader caught up with him, also attending the meeting was director of the Columbans in Australia, Fr Noel Connolly.
Fr Connolly had taught him at Sydney’s Columban seminary from 1976 to 1978.
“I was hoping to catch up with Kevin when he was down Essendon way, but it turned out I had to go to Lima so I’ve managed to catch him here,” Fr Connolly said.
“We often won’t see each other for years so (it’s) very important to make effort when we get the chance.”
Sydney-born Fr Mullins spent his childhood in various Queensland country towns including Wondai, Roma and Mount Isa as his father was a magistrate.
He gives a simple explanation of his vocation.
“God led me to the order in the first place.
“What I liked about Columbans was that they were normal, ordinary blokes.
“At the same time I sensed some idealism as they served poor people in multiple capacities.”
Once ordained, Fr Mullins decided to work overseas and had a choice between Pakistan and Chile. He opted for Pakistan but was sent to Chile.
This was during the Pinochet dictatorship, “a very tough time”, he describes it.
“It was a dangerous time to be a priest, a time when the Catholic Church there was very committed to human rights.
“I saw a lot of violence in my 12 years in Santiago.
“I also ministered out in the bush with the Mapuche, indigenous people, at a place 800 kilometres south of Santiago – Puerto Saavedra.
“It was a volcanic area and I stayed there about 10 years.
“I had a wonderful, mainly peaceful time, except when they were murdering each other over land squabbles – issues such as where to put fence.
“However, they were a very hospitable, gracious people with a wonderful sense of humour.”
Fr Mullins then returns to the topic of his current parish.
He presents some newspapers from his city to share with me.
These are most definitely not like your everyday Australian family newspapers but rather a terrible reminder of the ongoing battle for control being fought between warring drug lords.
The formula for the front page is quite simple – and horrifying.
And judging by the selection of newspapers Fr Mullins offers, the formula rarely varies.
It consists of photos of the latest killings: armless corpses, battered severed heads, bodies of those pulled from ambulances and shot, and, sadly recently, he says, images of his young parishioners found stoned to death.
Beautiful bikini-clad Mexican models, perhaps to assuage the horror, sit perched in the top right-hand corner of these confronting front pages.
He’s developed a dry sense of humour, possibly as a coping mechanism.
“I’ve never met such a collaborative people as Mexicans. They’re wonderful to work with.”
He jokes, “I may become a Catholic if I stay here much longer.”
More seriously, he notes that in the past six months he’s back to “saying the Rosary with extreme regularity”, reminded to keep this religious observation by the “tell-tale popping of Kalashnikov assault rifles at frequent intervals both day and night”.
Among his many dreams for his besieged parish is a youth centre.
“The idea is to offer sporting events to young people as an alternative pastime to involvement in drug trafficking,” he said.
“The parish recently held a weekend sports program at a broken-down place on top of a plateau and got a terrific response, so taking this track seems to offer a lot of advantages.”
Fr Mullins said those wishing to donate money to help get the youth centre up and running could send funds to: Fr Kevin’s Youth Project in Mexico, Columban Mission Centre, 69 Woodland St, Essendon Vic 3040.
Finally Fr Mullins had this to say to those of us fortunate enough to live in Australia.
“We Australians should give thanks to God for our system of government, imperfect as it is.
“The way of life here is outstanding and we must be grateful.
“At the same time we should also maintain our commitment to and collaboration with the Catholic Church given the great good it accomplishes.
“Also please, pray for the Mexican people as they respond to the Lord’s invitation to love and forgive even in the midst of injustice, impunity and corruption.”