Pope Francis Turns to Favorite Sport in Message to Texas Church

A young man told the pontiff of his struggles as an undocumented immigrant.

ByABC News
September 4, 2015, 1:50 PM

— -- Soccer aficionado Pope Francis took a page from his favorite sport's handbook recently in his message to a young man in McAllen, Texas, who had shared his story of adversity during an ABC News virtual audience with the pontiff via satellite.

Ricardo Ortiz, 19, of Houston, told Pope Francis on Monday that he'd lost a soccer scholarship to college once the school had found out he was not a U.S. citizen.

"They informed [me] that I wasn't able to attend the university of my dreams," he said. "I ended up going to a community college, started working full time, started supporting my family."

He was one of many immigrants and congregants who filled Sacred Heart Church to take part in the virtual audience. The international event was moderated from inside the Vatican by ABC News anchor David Muir and included groups from not only McAllen, but also Chicago and Los Angeles. In McAllen, Sacred Heart Church is located on the US-Mexico border and is a sort of welcome center for Latin American immigrants.

Ortiz said Monday that he'd come to the U.S. from Mexico on a tourist visa when he was 4 years old. His father had brought him and his mother to the country for a chance at a better future, but he said his father sometimes had difficulty finding work because he was undocumented.

PHOTO: Pope Francis held a virtual audience with Americans in an ABC News event ahead of his 
visit to the U.S.
Pope Francis held a virtual audience with Americans in an ABC News event ahead of his visit to the U.S.

"Immigration policies started to be a little bit harsher on the immigrants' families and the immigration population in general," Ortiz said. "Around the age of 15. ... I began to cut grass. I began to do minimal jobs to just get $25, $30 more. ... [But] I wasn't able to support the family like I would want to."

When Ortiz was around 17, his father had an accident and nearly lost his leg. He was not able to work.

Thankfully, due to the 2012 immigration law Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Ortiz attained a work permit and held down after-school jobs.

"That happening impacted my life in a very deep way. I had to become the breadwinner of the family. I had to be the person that supported our family," said Ortiz, whose family had then grown with three younger brothers. "I never lost faith. I never lost the strength that my father and mother gave me."

Eventually, his father was able to return to work and Ortiz was able to graduate high school, where he'd picked up soccer in his junior year and excelled. On Monday, he asked the pope what was the solution to the world's problems.

Pope Francis, a well-known avid soccer fan, expressed admiration for Ortiz and told him Monday that "the match is played between friendship in society and enmity in society."

"We are all created for friendship in society. All of us bear responsibility for everyone else," the pope said. "And each one has to make a choice in his or her heart. And we have to help that choice to be made in the heart. Escaping it through addiction, through violence, does not help. Only closeness and giving of myself, all that I have to give, the way you gave everything you could as a boy, when you supported your family. Don't forget that."

After the event, Ortiz said his exchange with the pontiff was "amazing."

For Pope Francis, to be "where the border is at, where immigration is such a big part of it, it shows that he's a different type of pope and that he's really doing something to make a difference," Ortiz said.