El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz and a small group of priests knelt in silence in 2020 for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on the neck of George Floyd. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz was returning from saying Mass at about 9:30 Wednesday morning when his cell phone rang. The caller ID said “restricted.”

“The Holy Father would like to speak to you. What language would you like to talk to him in, Spanish or Italian?” Pope Francis’ secretary asked when Seitz answered the call. The bishop chose Spanish and the pontiff came on the line. 

“It was about a maybe two-, three-minute call. And he said he wanted to congratulate me. And the best I can recall the words, I think he said, for the words I am saying, something like that. But I think I was open enough that it could have meant also actions,” Seitz said in an interview with El Paso Matters.

Pope Francis was referring to a prayer service that Seitz and several priests conducted on Monday at Memorial Park to honor the memory of George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked worldwide protests over police brutality toward African-Americans.

Seitz and the priests knelt and prayed silently for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, ignoring his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. The ceremony was near the spot where El Paso police had fired tear gas and projectiles to end a protest by young people on Sunday.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz leads an opening prayer in Memorial Park on Monday, where he and a small group of priests gathered for a mostly silent protest against George Floyd’s death. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I told the pope that I felt it was very important at this time for us to show our solidarity with those who are suffering. And I told him that I had just come from Mass in which I was praying for him, as I always do, of course. And he thanked me and said something kind of beautiful for me. He said that whenever we celebrate Mass, we are united. We’re praying together, he where he is and me at the border. And those were his words. ‘Y usted en la frontera.’”

The El Paso bishop also has been one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s leaders in challenging mistreatment of migrants.

Hours before calling Seitz, the pope earlier condemned racism and warned against violence.

Pope Francis on Wednesday also called Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to “express his prayers and closeness to the Church and people of the United States in this moment of unrest,” Gomez said. Seitz said he believes the pope got his cell-phone number from the archbishop.

Monday’s prayerful protest by Seitz and the El Paso priests was shared widely on social media. A Catholic newspaper in Rome ran an extensive story and several photos of the event, Seitz said, and he believes that may be where the pope learned of it.

About a dozen priests joined El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz in kneeling in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Memorial Park on Monday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“He’s shown himself to be attentive to us here in El Paso on several occasions now. You have to conclude that of all the places in the world that a pope has under his wing, that El Paso has a special place in his heart,” Seitz said.

El Paso was the focal point of a migrant humanitarian crisis in 2018-19 and the site of a white supremacist mass shooting in August 2019. Pope Francis also visited Ciudad Juárez in 2016.

Seitz has been one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s leaders in challenging white supremacy and mistreatment of migrants.

The bishop credited Pope Francis for giving him the ability to speak freely on politically charged topics.

“I feel that the Holy Father has certainly set out a path for us as leaders on the border. And he’s also, in a sense, provided cover. It’s kind of a daunting thing to speak on such a contentious issue. And we bishops, we really shy away from anything that could appear political,” Seitz said. “But the Holy Father has shown us that that fear should not keep us from bringing Gospel values to play in the issues that are causing much suffering in our country, and among the poor.”

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.