Only a groundbreaking two-hour meeting with the Russian Orthodox patriarch in a Havana airport on his way to Mexico could detract from one of Pope Francis’ most significant apostolic voyages yet.
Mexico is not just the world’s second-largest Catholic nation, one of the key countries of Latin America and the hinge between North and South; it is also encapsulates within its borders the grueling challenges facing the developing world — and the chance of salvation through a new opening to God’s mercy.
Arriving at the start of Lent as “a missionary of mercy and peace” — the visit’s official title — Pope Francis aims to open up new possibilities and reasons for hope at a time when the country’s violence, corruption and inequality present many excuses for despair. But he also wants to use the visit to call for global solutions to what are increasingly global problems, as he made clear in answer to questions put to him by Mexicans in a Jan. 22 TV interview organized by the Mexican news agency Notimex.
“Violence, corruption, war, children who can’t go to school because their countries are in conflict, trafficking, arms manufacturers who sell weapons so that the wars continue — this is more or less the climate we live in the world today,” he said, adding that the Mexican people were living their own “little piece” of that “war.”
Pope Francis, who has twice visited Mexico as a Jesuit (1970) and archbishop (1998), has made clear that he would not be going were it not for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose appearance in 1531, shortly after the Spanish conquest, to a native Mexican sparked the largest mass conversion in Christian history. The dark-skinned Virgin’s compassion and maternal closeness to the people — “am I not your mother?” she asked Juan Diego — is a perfect icon for Pope Francis’ call for a more maternal, merciful and missionary Church, one that identifies with the poor and their needs. In Francis’ mind, she also represents both the reason and the antidote for Mexico’s problems. Precisely because of the appearance of “La Morenita,” he told Televisa’s Valentina Alazraki last year, the devil has responded angrily and placed terrible temptations in Mexico’s path.
“The Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of the drug cartels, is not the Mexico that our Mother wants,” he said in the Notimex broadcast, adding that he wanted to urge people to struggle every day against organized crime, corruption, violence and people-trafficking by sowing “gentleness, understanding, peace.”
The idea that the pope might help solve Mexico’s deep-seated problems is one that has been embraced, amazingly, by its traditionally religion-phobic government. After a long process of ridding the Constitution of its draconian anti-clericalism, and legislating for religious freedom in its legislation, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto says it is looking forward to the papal visit helping to renew Mexican values.
On Feb. 13, Peña Nieto is scheduled to welcome Pope Francis to the presidential palace — the first time a pope has entered a building synonymous with Mexico’s anticlerical revolution of 1910 — in a powerful symbol of the new Church-state rapprochement. After addressing the bishops in the nearby cathedral, Pope Francis will that afternoon say Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe, after which he has asked to spend time in private prayer before the tilma, Juan Diego’s cloak bearing the Virgin’s miraculous image. Here, at the site of the world’s most visited devotion, Pope Francis will seek to connect his papacy and the whole Catholic Church with the deep-seated traditions of Latin-American popular religiosity.
On society’s margins
From this point on — Feb. 14 until his departure from Ciudad Juárez on the evening of Feb. 17 — Pope Francis will be spending almost all of his time in Mexico’s margins, in four dioceses never visited by previous popes, to be with those for whom he has made clear he has come: prisoners, the sick, the immigrants, the indigenous peoples, the victims of violence, as well as the young and the unemployed. In each case, he will be illustrating the way God saves humanity by opening himself to misery in all its forms. He will also show where he wants the Church to be — in the midst of that misery, rather than standing with its arms crossed among the wealthy.
Most unusually, he will be returning each night to sleep at the nunciature in Mexico City, flying out again each morning, in a symbolic reconnecting of center with periphery from where, in Pope Francis’ thinking, the renewal of both Church and society will come. Hence Ecatepec, the poorest and most violent area in the state of Mexico, where he will celebrate Mass for an expected crowd of 2 million on Feb. 14 before visiting a hospital for sick children in the city.
The next day, he leaves for Chiapas, on the southern border with Guatemala, Mexico’s least Catholic state, where 75 percent of the population belong to Mexico’s many indigenous peoples. The following day, Feb. 16, the pope will journey west of the capital to Morelia, in the state of Michoacán, a deeply Catholic state that has been the site of a brutal struggle between the cartels and a corrupt state government. There, he will address priests and religious and later young people before returning to Mexico City.
His last day, Feb. 17, he will spend in the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez, where he will meet with prisoners as well as workers before celebrating Mass up against the border fence that separates the city from the Texas town of El Paso.
The Mass is the main focus for the U.S. media, aware of the power of Pope Francis’ actions and words at a time when Donald Trump is among the leaders for the Republican presidential nomination and, in Europe, far-right parties are protesting the arrivals of vast numbers of refugees. Pope Francis’ appeal to see the immigration question through the eyes of God’s mercy — in other words, starting from the suffering and needs of those who risk all in search of a better life — is likely to have a deep effect on policy debates across the world. Francis’ final act on his Mexican trip will be its culminating moment.
Yet there will be much that matters before then. The Mass with indigenous clergy in San Cristóbal in Chiapas, an ecological site, in which the liturgy will be in the indigenous languages of Tzeltal and Tzotzil, will be an opportunity to teach from his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), about the need to reconnect with the earth and preserve human culture.
At the Mass in Morelia, he will use the crozier of “Tata” Vasco, the 16th-century Bishop of Michoacán, who was a friend to the natives and a human-rights advocate — a perfect chance to place the missionary Church close to the poor.
And in Ciudad Juárez, home to coyotes (people-traffickers) and maquiladoras (sweatshops), he will address people from the world of work, including representatives of the popular movements he addressed in July last year in Bolivia.
Here, in the heart of a city that stands for all the ills that globalization generates — “the throwaway culture,” in the pope’s famous phrase — Francis will make an appeal for the right to work, jobs and housing, and international policies that do not sacrifice human beings to economic ends.
The thread running through the Mexico trip will be mercy: that humanity is saved not through ideology, security or economic growth but by entering into the darkness of the poor, emulating the visceral, fiercely parental love of God. What better symbol of that darkness than Mexico’s violent cities, and what other icon of that mercy than Pope Francis?
Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).
A version of this story appears in the Feb. 21, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 5.