JIQUIPILCO, Mexico — “I urgently need missionaries,” wrote Father Antonio Jarquin in mid-January to one of the laymen who had visited his string of communities with a group of lay missionaries during Holy Week some years ago. “There are a lot of Protestants in [the area] of this parish,” he explained, “and the Catholics are very divided. I’ve been here seven months, and, truly, the work has been very difficult.”
Father Jarquin is one of the 120 or so priests of the Diocese of Atlacomulco, in central Mexico. Much of the diocesan territory is rural, and the priests assigned to these zones are responsible for multiple poverty-stricken communities clustered in one or two parishes. Father Jarquin is currently covering only 12 communities within his parish; some years ago, he was in charge of founding a parish in which he covered 22 communities.
“You can imagine the number of Masses I said on the weekend,” he chuckled, after explaining his current weight of 10 or 11 Masses on Saturday and another seven on Sunday.
Father Jarquin is a characteristic example of one facet of the Church in the diverse land of Mexico, where Pope Francis will be visiting Feb. 12-18. The Church in Mexico — though strong in many respects, with more than 80% of the population still professing Catholicism and nearly the whole country considering themselves “Guadalupan” — is a Church whose many needs are intertwined with the problems facing society as a whole, including poverty, drug trafficking, migration and under-education.
The lay missionary addressed by Father Jarquin is Othón Tovar, who for a number of years has served the Church in Mexico City and its suburbs as a teacher for Escuela de la Fe (School of Faith), in addition to leading missions with lay families to rural areas, such as those of the Diocese of Atlacomulco.
Tovar gave an overview of some of the characteristics of the Mexican faithful, describing both strong points and challenges for the Church.
He noted how the faith is generally linked to traditional Christian practices — pilgrimages, processions and candles — but also how this can sometimes fall into superstition.
“The majority is Catholic,” he said, “but the majority is ignorant [of the faith].”
Combine this ignorance of the faith with the problems of poverty, and the challenges abound: Cohabiting is common, Father Jarquin reported. Families are easily broken by migration and infidelity. The sacraments are little understood, with the focus on the celebration that comes after a baptism or first Communion, rather than on the sacrament itself. This results in children being baptized well beyond infant stage.
Still, few if any institutions in Mexico claim more respect than the Church. Surveys reveal that the people trust the Church, Tovar explained, whereas they have very little trust in the government.
And even if the faithful lack formation in their faith, the catechist was quick to point out that this in no way indicates a lack of faith. On the contrary, as evidenced by the faithful attended by Father Jarquin, love for Christ, Our Lady and the Church will bring the people to great personal sacrifice — walking hours to Mass, for example.
The Pope’s Itinerary
The Pope’s itinerary includes six days in the country, where he will cross from the far south to the far north, though spending a bulk of time in the center.
He will meet with families and indigenous communities from the jungles of the southern state of Chiapas when he visits Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de Las Casas.
On his final day in Mexico, he will head to the far north, to Ciudad Juarez, on the border with El Paso, Texas, to visit a detention center and meet with representatives of the working world.
Much of his time will be spent in the central region, in Mexico City (where Our Lady of Guadalupe is) and in a visit to the west-central state of Michoacan, where he will meet with young people, as well as priests and religious.
“With the places that he will visit, he comes to address the primary difficulties facing Mexico,” according to Julieta Appendini, the director of the charity Aid to the Church in Need’s Mexico offices.
She noted how, in Chiapas, he will “address all of the issues related to indigenous peoples and immigration, which now is not just migrants, but also refugees.”
Then, in Michoacan, “there are the representative cities dealing with drug trafficking.”
Finally, Ciudad Juarez, and all of the north, represents the issues of the homicides of women and the broader problem of violence and assassinations, as well as the challenges faced by the many factory workers and laborers. And, as a city directly across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Ciudad Juarez will again highlight the immigration issue.
“The trip gives a type of panorama on the greatest problems that right now are facing Mexico,” Appendini said. “And I think, from this perspective, it should be interpreted.”
Even if he will be confronting the most difficult challenges facing the nation, there’s no doubt the Pope will be welcomed with exuberance. “Because Mexicans are welcoming in general,” remarked Appendini.
And also because Mexico is a land that deeply loves the Pope, in part perhaps because John Paul II’s five visits to the country instilled in the people an enthusiasm for the bishop of Rome that overrides any failings the Mexican flock might have in living Church teaching.
Their love for John Paul II — “Juan Pablo, hermano, ya eres mexicano (John Paul, our brother, you’re now Mexican)” — translated effortlessly, if surprisingly, to similar enthusiasm for Benedict XVI, who proudly donned a black traditional sombrero during his 2012 visit.
If Pope Francis found the enthusiasm of Africa took him by surprise in November, one can only imagine what will happen in February, when the first pope from Latin America arrives to a pope-loving nation where he can speak freely and off the cuff, as is his wont, in his own native language. He already joked in January with a pilgrim in St. Peter’s Square, asking if there will be tequila on hand for his visit.
Undoubtedly there will be tequila — though perhaps the Pope won’t partake much — as well as effusive exuberance and affection. There will also be hearts ready, and eager, to hear the message directed to the grave issues facing them as a people and a society.
Kathleen Naab writes from Houston, where she covers news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.