MEXICO CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to Mexico, planned for March 23-26, comes at a time when Mexicans could use a reminder that hope is on the horizon.
“Mexicans’ spirits are low,” observed Rossana Gómez, a languages professor from Mexico City. “It’s gotten to the point that there seems to be no hope of improvement in the future.”
Mexico has taken blow after blow in recent years, from the outbreak of the H1N1 virus in 2009 to the economic recession to the drug-related slaughters in Monterrey and the border towns. Violence has escalated in recent months, even in formerly peaceful cities like Veracruz and Acapulco, as warring drug cartels have dumped decapitated or tortured bodies on major thoroughfares in well-to-do areas. These gruesome calling cards — graphic messages to the civil authorities, other cartels and the public at large — have instilled a sense of fear and insecurity in many citizens. As if that weren’t enough, there is also a new wave of media hype about the Mayan calendar’s supposed prediction that 2012 will mark the apocalyptic end of an era.
“With all of that, people start wondering: If things are this bad and the world is going to end, why try to improve it?” said Gómez.
It is precisely this prevailing mood of discouragement, anxiety and insecurity that the Pope will address in his upcoming visit to the city of León in the state of Guanajuato.
In a Jan. 3 interview with W Radio Mexico, Archbishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábago of León said, “In the environment we are living in today, so full of worries and weighted down with pessimism, we need a voice we can trust to invite us to hope, to guarantee that the Lord’s strength is with us, to reconcile with each other, and to know we can be builders of a more just world.”
The Pope’s visit is “fundamentally to evangelize, to make present the word of God, and to invite us to reconcile and be bearers of hope,” he said.
Preparations are currently under way in the city of León, which Church officials say was chosen over Mexico City because the capital’s high altitude — more than 7,000 feet above sea level — presents a health risk for the 84-year-old Holy Father. The Pope was unable to attend the 2009 World Meeting of Families in Mexico City for the same reason.
León’s location made it a convenient second choice, Archbishop Martín told CNA.
“León is the geographical center of Mexico, and since the Pope is not going to visit other areas of Mexico, a site accessible to the largest number of Mexicans was chosen,” said the archbishop.
León, known for being a deeply Catholic city, was never visited by Pope John Paul II during his five trips to Mexico, so Pope Benedict’s arrival is “a way to allow people to rejoice in this experience of faith,” said Archbishop Martín.
The timing of this papal visit also happens to coincide with the near peak of the electoral season, as Mexico prepares to elect its next president, senators and congressmen. Elections will take place July 1, just three months after the visit.
For some, the timing is no coincidence. There are those who contend that the Pope’s visit was strategically planned in order to boost the more conservative party’s presidential candidate. For a country with a historical emphasis on a strict separation between church and state, this possibility is both cause for indignation and fodder for speculation.
Eli Masferrer, a professor and researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, told Mexican newspaper El Proceso that the Pope’s visit could sway up to 40% of the votes toward the right-wing PAN party and away from the left-of-center PRI and far-left PRD.
Ana Maria Salazar Slack, a national security and public security expert on Latin America, told the Register that she takes a more conservative view on the potential political impact of the Pope’s visit.
“Most analysts will say that it is a boost for whoever will be the PAN candidate. A visit by the Pope could mobilize the more disciplined Catholics in the country to come out and vote, and most would vote for the PAN,” she said.
But, she continued, the visit will most likely not be enough to reach the critical tipping point, since Mexicans are leaning toward the PRI after what many consider to be an unsuccessful PAN administration, with Felipe Calderón exiting as a “lame duck” president.
“No one is thinking that the PAN is going to win. The issue is whether they come in second or third. It will be a very different Mexico with the PRI and PRD as the first and second force in the country,” she said.
Yet, even if the Pope’s visit does not sway the country’s choice of president, she noted, it will re-open debate on controversial issues that have been the subject of recent legislation on the state and federal levels, such as abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and adoption by same-sex couples.
“The Pope will mobilize public opinion on those contentious issues,” said Salazar. “Whether that opinion translates into actual legislation or actual votes is a big question mark. Clearly, it re-opens the debate right in the middle of the electoral process.”
Yet Archbishop Martín insists that speculations about an underlying political agenda are completely out of place — although not surprising, given Mexico’s history and frame of mind.
“We are entering into a context of a lot of political perception,” he told W Radio Mexico. “Up to a certain point, it’s understandable that some would want to give it a political spin, but this is totally alien to the Pope’s intentions, which are limited to evangelization.”
“I invite people to listen to the Pope’s message. They will see there will be no message that can be interpreted politically,” he said.
Message for Today’s Mexico
Although Mexico is a traditionally Catholic country and enjoyed a special relationship with Pope John Paul II, it has not been exempt from an overall trend toward secularization. As in other countries, the pedophilia scandal has taken its toll, especially with the high-profile case of Father Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the religious order of the Legionaries of Christ and its associated lay movement, Regnum Christi. Mexico City, the country’s capital, with more than 21 million inhabitants, is currently one of the most leftist and permissive cities in all of Latin America.
In addition, there are many Mexicans whose loyalty to John Paul II has left them indifferent to his successor.
“After the death of John Paul II, the figure of the pope was lost to me and to many people,” said René Leal, a business owner in Xalapa, Veracruz. “There are a lot of people like me, who have never taken the time to get to know him, so his visit to Mexico is cause neither for joy nor repudiation,” he said.
Will the Pope’s visit be marked by indifference compared to the immense popularity of John Paul II’s visits?
“The Pope has a very tough act to follow,” said Ana Maria Salazar. “When John Paul II came, he was such a force to contend with that he had — and continues to have — an enormous impact in terms of how Mexican Catholics view themselves. I think Mexican Catholics felt special because of this perceived closeness with the prior Pope. I don’t perceive that same relationship with this Pope,” she said.
Theologian George Weigel believes Pope John Paul II was able to connect with the Mexican people so deeply during his visits to the country in part because of a “deep affinity between Polish popular piety and Mexican popular piety.”
“The Pope who came from the land of the Black Madonna could draw on this ‘link’ in the land of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said. “In doing so, John Paul II helped Mexican Catholicism leave the virtual catacombs to which it had been consigned by decades of secularism and re-enter public life.”
Today, 20 years after Mexico re-established diplomatic ties with the Holy See, what will the next step be, and how will Pope Benedict help bring it about?
Weigel said, “I think the real question here is whether the Mexican people will hear the Pope’s call to a New Evangelization and make that the occasion to rebuild the country, which is in a very bad way.
“More than 500 years after the Gospel came to the Americas, it’s time for Latin American Catholicism to become the protagonist of its own history and the leader in rebuilding civic culture and civil society.”
For Archbishop Martín, the key to this visit’s fruitfulness will not be the size of the crowds or the volume of their cheering. Rather, it will be the depth of their listening and the conviction and perseverance with which they respond to the Pope’s words in their daily lives.
“We hope that the event will not just be a spectacle or a cause for euphoria,” said the archbishop of León, “but that we prepare ourselves and receive the Pope’s message in such a way that it will bear permanent fruits.”
Register correspondent Trish Bailey writes from Veracruz, Mexico.
A Whirlwind Visit
March 23: Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the airport in León, Guanajuato, and is officially welcomed by the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, Archbishop José Martín of León, and representatives of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference.
March 24: In the evening, Pope Benedict XVI will meet with President Calderón and his delegation. Afterwards, he will greet and bless children and all the faithful in La Paz Square.
March 25: The Holy Father will preside at Mass in Bicentennial Park in the city of Silao, near the monument to Christ the King. Representatives of the faithful from all 91 Mexican dioceses will be present. In the afternoon, he will celebrate vespers in León’s cathedral and deliver a message to all the bishops of Mexico, as well as representatives of the Bishops’ Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean.
March 26: The Holy Father will depart for Cuba from the León airport.