Pope’s Visit to Mexico—Will It Help the Church?
By Awake! correspondent in Mexico
“THE ‘Pilgrim of Evangelization’ Lands in Mexico” was the headline of the Vatican English weekly L’Osservatore Romano of May 7, 1990. This was the second visit of John Paul II to Mexico in just 11 years. What message did the pope bring? What were the expectations of the Mexican people and the Catholic Church in Mexico? What benefits would it bring to the Mexican people?
According to some press reports, the millions of poor and oppressed hoped that the pope would affect the conscience of the ruling class and bring about better conditions for the working class. An article in the Mexican daily El Universal had the title: “Christianity and the Poor of Mexico.” It spoke of an open letter to John Paul II from a large and varied group of Mexican Catholics. The letter stated in part: “This people, knocked about and in the process of organization and participation, awaits a word of encouragement.” And it entreated him: “We ask that you again be ‘the voice of those without voice.’ . . . Proclaim the message of hope and life and demand justice, especially for the poor and the oppressed.”
How did the pope answer the call? In a massive meeting held in the town of Chalco on the outskirts of Mexico City, where more than two million mostly very poor people came together to hear him, John Paul II made this appeal: “Therefore I invite Christians and all people of goodwill in Mexico to awaken their social consciences in solidarity; we cannot live and sleep peacefully while thousands of our brothers and sisters who are very near to us are deprived of the necessities for leading a worthy human life.”
Not all the Catholic media were impressed by such words. The U.S. National Catholic Reporter carried the headline: “Pope Passed Mexican Poor at 50 km. an Hour.” It claimed that “many of the poor . . . endured hours of rain just for a glimpse of the popemobile, which passed at 50 kilometers per hour.” A Mexican daily, La Jornada, stated: “Inside the basilica? Fancy suits and dresses. Outside? Thousands of poor on their knees in the rain.” Others complained that while he talked with politicians and businessmen, he did not have direct dialogue with the workers and the campesinos.
Major Issue—Restoration of Church Power
However, the main preoccupation of the Catholic Church in Mexico is with trying to recover some of the power and prestige it lost nearly 150 years ago when Benito Juárez, an educated Zapotec Indian who later became president of Mexico, led a liberal reform movement. The church is also irked by certain laws from that period, the “Laws of Reform,” strengthened in the Constitution adopted in 1917, that the clergy consider restrictive to the operations of the Catholic Church.
The clergy dislike Article 3, which keeps all religion, including Catholicism, out of the State school system. Article 5 prohibits the establishment of monastic orders. Article 27 does not allow any religion to own property or real estate; all churches are the property of the State. Article 130 states that the law does not recognize any religious group, and religious ministers have no special status under the law. They are not allowed to criticize in public or in private the fundamental laws of the nation.
In view of these restrictions, the Catholic Church wants to get the Constitution modified to give the church more power and room to maneuver. The pope’s visit was a vehicle for these aspirations. From the sidelines other religions suspiciously watch this Catholic flirtation with the government, asking themselves if more freedom for the Catholic Church would mean more liberty for all religions in the country. However, in March 1990, a government official, Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, stated very clearly that separation of Church and State would continue, as would also respect for all beliefs and ways of thinking.
Nevertheless, the fact that the pope was welcomed at the airport by the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and was invited to his palace is being viewed by many Catholics as a favorable sign. They feel that the very presence of the pope as well as the huge public religious meetings that were allowed seemed to indicate that the authorities recognized a need for change. The Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano commented that the presence of Mexico’s president at the airport “eloquently [expressed] the improving Church-State relations in Mexico.”
The clergy and Catholic propagandists are trying to make capital of this public support for the pope’s visit. Mr. Alamilla Arteaga, chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Social Communications, stated: “This event, the papal visit, is a national plebiscite. And national plebiscite means a massive, spontaneous mobilization of the multitudes to support a desire . . . , the desire of a whole people, because we already know that the Catholic community is the majority group of the nation.”
Evangelization and Fear of the Sects
During his stay in Mexico, the pope emphasized the theme of evangelization. In fact, one of the purposes of his visit was to give renewed impetus to the Mexican church, “a shaking up on a spiritual level,” as was expressed by the apostolic delegate, Girolamo Prigione. On the day of his arrival, May 6, John Paul II said in his speech: “The Lord . . . has wished that my pontificate be that of a pilgrim Pope of evangelization, walking down the roads of the world bringing to all areas the message of salvation. . . . I directed an appeal to all the Churches which are on this ‘continent of hope’ to undertake a New Evangelization.”
He also warned his bishops: “Nor must you pay less attention to the problem of the ‘new religious groups’, who are sowing confusion among the faithful . . . Their methods, their economic resources, and the insistence of their proselytizing work have an impact above all on those who emigrate from the country to the city. However, we cannot forget that many times their success is due to the lukewarmness and indifference of the sons and daughters of the Church who are not up to the level of the evangelizing mission, with the weak witness they bear to consistent Christian living.”
How did the pope try to draw back those who have left the church? Was it by encouraging them to study the Bible? In his speech at Villahermosa, he said: “Come back to the heart of the Church, your Mother! The Virgin of Guadalupe, with her ‘compassionate glance’, has longed to present you to her Son.” So rather than use the appeal of God’s Word, he resorted to sentimental religious emotion in a vain attempt to recover lost Catholics.
Thus, as in nearly all his travels, John Paul II reverted to his Trinity-based fixation —the veneration of Mary, the “Mother of God.” He stated in his opening speech: “The Pope comes to prostrate before the powerful image of the Virgin of Guadalupe to invoke her maternal help and protection on the pontifical ministry itself . . . and to place in her hands the future of Latin American evangelization.”
However, some have asked themselves if these same messages pronounced by the pope were really intended to focus on evangelization. It is true, some people got carried away by the presence and words of the pope, but others felt that the maximum authority of the church spoke more about economics, politics, and human rights and very little about God’s Word. Maybe that is the reason the daily newspaper El Universal of May 8, 1990, stated: “Thinking persons wonder if Mexican Catholicism will reap the very rich benefit that could be gained from the Pope’s second visit” or if, like his first visit, it will not affect the course of Catholic life to any noticeable degree.
Will the spiritual needs of the people be satisfied? Already hundreds of thousands of sincere Mexicans are finding spiritual satisfaction through the evangelizing work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To use the pope’s phrase, the people’s “thirst for God” is being satisfied by their gaining from the Bible an accurate knowledge of the true God, Jehovah, and of his Son, Christ Jesus. In association with over 8,000 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico, they are putting their trust, not in man’s false promises, but in God’s promise of his Kingdom rule for mankind on a paradise earth.—Matthew 6:9, 10; John 17:3; Revelation 21:1-4.
[Pictures on page 15]
Pope John Paul II being welcomed by the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari
Vendors selling “Pope John Paul II” souvenirs