Pope: Envoy of Peace to Mexico

What the Pope will find when he visits Mexico.

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.

Politics and Faith

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.

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.

Added papal biographer George Weigel, “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.”

Trish Bailey writes from Veracruz, Mexico.