What Pope Benedict's Latin America Journey Meant

Register editorials on Pope Benedict's Mexico and Cuba trips from our April 8 issue.

'Vaya con Dios'

From the very beginning of his apostolic visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI took note of the “deep roots of the Catholic faith among the Mexican people.”

Indeed, the efforts of Spanish missionaries in the early days of European discovery in America, the intervention of God in the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 and the faithful witness of Mexican saints and martyrs over the centuries have made Mexico one of the Church’s most-beloved daughters.

But Mexico itself is in need of modern-day witnesses: Not only is it afflicted by a deadly drug war and corruption in government, but various jurisdictions have legalized abortion and homosexual “unions.”

Pope Benedict came to the country to “strengthen the brethren” in the faith — the role he has as the Successor of St. Peter in regard to the various local Churches around the world.

“I wish to confirm those who believe in Christ in their faith, by strengthening and encouraging them to revitalize their faith by listening to the word of God, celebrating the sacraments and living coherently,” he said at the welcoming ceremony in Guanajuato March 23. “In this way, they will be able to share their faith with others as missionaries to their brothers and sisters and to act as a leaven in society, contributing to a respectful and peaceful coexistence based on the incomparable dignity of every human being, created by God, which no one has the right to forget or disregard. This dignity is expressed especially in the fundamental right to freedom of religion, in its full meaning and integrity.”

Central to the life of Catholics is the celebration of the Mass, the re-presentation of the sacrifice by which Christ paid the price for Adam’s sin. This is why Benedict could refer to all Catholics, not just those with a priestly or religious vocation, as “missionaries.” This makes sense especially to Spanish-speaking Catholics, who know the liturgy as la Misa: From the Mass, the faithful are sent — dismissed — into the world. As they go out, they bear Christ, the Bread of Life, who transforms the missionary and provides leaven for society.

But to be able to do so requires a “coherence” of life in which a Christian lives, thinks and acts as a Christian, not only in church, but in civil society as well.

In his farewell address, the Pope urged Mexicans to not let themselves be “intimidated by the powers of evil, but to be valiant and to work to ensure that the sap of your Christian roots may nourish your present and your future.”

Before he touched down on Mexican soil, the Pope offered an answer to the drug-related violence. “Above all, we have to proclaim God,” he said, “God who is our judge and who loves us. But he loves us to call us to the good and to the truth against evil.” In this battle to make truth and goodness present, “the Church has the great responsibility of educating consciences, educating in moral responsibility and unmasking evil,” he said in an in-flight press conference.

He noted that although many Mexicans are Catholic, “in their public life they follow other paths that do not respond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for establishing a just society.” In response to this challenge, the Holy Father indicated the need for a deeper education that spans not only individual morality, but also public morality, as in the social doctrine of the Church.

At the end of his Latin American visit, the Holy Father met with Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro. In Fidel and Religion, a 1987 book of interviews with Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto, Castro admitted, “If the masses of our country — the great masses of workers, farmers, and university students — had been active Christians, we couldn’t have formed a revolutionary party based on those premises.”

Even Castro knows the potential of a Church that lives the faith. Catholics in the United States, facing their own challenges in an increasingly secular culture, should ponder that reality.

Cuba's Faith Runs Deep

Benedict views his papacy — and his visit to Mexico and Cuba — as a continuation and a fulfillment of the pontificate of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, a man who personally experienced the horrors of totalitarian rule and aroused the consciences of enslaved peoples with his repeated call: “Be not afraid.”

While many Cubans hoped the Holy Father would offer a more explicit critique of the island’s totalitarian government, he seized various opportunities to defend human dignity and challenge communist rule.

In a widely reported statement, he observed that “Marxist ideology, as it was conceived, no longer responds to reality” in Cuba.

Just as John Paul once reminded Cold War-era tyrants that religious freedom and other fundamental human rights take priority over assertions of state power, Benedict’s decision to mark the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, the revered Cuban Marian icon, reminded the Castro regime of Catholicism’s deeper roots on the island — and of the likelihood that the Church would survive totalitarian rule.

Economic and political reform will not serve the common good unless they are accompanied by the “indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.”

Indeed, this public witness signals a deeper truth that real and effective social and political change is anchored in the spiritual and moral transformation of the individual conscience.

“I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you may live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”