Pope energizes Mexican Catholics with call to revival of faith
“I come as a pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love,” Pope Benedict XVI announced when he landed in Mexico on Friday afternoon, March 24, to begin a weekend visit.
The Holy Father flew into Leon, at the geographic center of Mexico. At the city’s airport he was greeted by President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, who welcomed the Pontiff while voicing his confidence that Mexico’s strong national character will eventually enable the people to overcome current problems, notably including the “ruthless and naked violence” of drug traffickers.
Pope Benedict, in his first address, emphasized that he was visiting Mexico as a pastor, to encourage the Catholics of Mexico and “revitalize their faith.” He said: “This country and the entire continent are called to live their hope in God as a profound conviction, transforming it into an attitude of the heart and a practical commitment to walk together in the building of a better world.”
The Pontiff repeated that message throughout his visit to Mexico. At his appearances in and around Leon—which was, he mentioned, a city that Blessed John Paul II had hoped to visit, but never did—he continually stressed the urgent need to revive the faith of the Mexican people.
In an address to bishops, the Pope drove home this message with an accent on the coming Year of Faith, saying that the “continental mission” launched by the bishops of Latin America fits perfectly with the theme of the New Evangelization. The revival of faith, the Pope added, is the natural basis for efforts to reform society. He explained: “The initiatives planned for the Year of Faith must be aimed at guiding men and women to Christ; his grace will enable them to cast off the bonds of sin and slavery, and to progress along the path of authentic and responsible freedom.” Exhorting the bishops to teach the faith tirelessly, he urged them: “Stand beside those who are marginalized as the result of force, power, or a prosperity which is blind to the poorest of the poor.” The Pope did not ignore the problems besetting Mexico during his appearances there. At a meeting with young people he offered special encouragement and a promise of solidarity to “those who have to bear the burden of suffering, abandonment, violence or hunger, which in recent months, because of drought, has made itself strongly felt in some regions.” And on Sunday, as he led the Angelus prayers, he appealed to Our Lady of Guadalupe to help the many Mexicans “suffering due to poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values and increased crime.” However, the Pope’s message invariably came back to the fundamental theme that the Church must first promote faith in Jesus Christ, and let social programs take root in that renewed faith. He warned that “human strategies will not suffice to save us. We must have recourse to the One Who alone can give life in its fullness, because He is the essence of life and its author.”
The high point of the Pope’s visit came on Sunday morning, when he celebrated Mass at the Bicentennial Park in Leon for a massive congregation estimated at 500,000. Arriving by helicopter, the Pope mentioned in his homily that he had flown past the 60-foot statute of Christ the King that is placed at the geographical center of Mexico. Destroyed in 1929, the statue was rebuilt in 1940, and now stands as a towering symbol of faith. “May Christ reign in your lives and help you,” the Pope told the congregation. However, he quickly went on to say that the reign of Christ is not like any ordinary human power:
His kingdom does not stand on the power of his armies subduing others through force or violence. It rests on a higher power than wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought into the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness.
The Pope’s strong spiritual message disappointed some observers who had expected stronger political implications for the visit, especially with Mexico facing national elections and the ruling PAN party trailing in the polls. But the Pope sidestepped partisan political issues, preferring a pastoral message. The one negative theme raised during the days of the papal visit was the Vatican’s record of support for the late Father Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. A new book on that subject, The Will Not to Know, was launched this week to considerable publicity, providing documentation for the charge that Vatican officials had evidence of Maciel’s misconduct decades before he was finally removed from public ministry in 2008. However the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, reminded reporters that it was Benedict XVI who pressed for disciplinary action against Maciel and finally ordered him to a life of solitude and penance. Father Lombardi also disclosed that in the investigation leading to the beatification of Pope John Paul II, researchers had concluded that the late Pontiff was not made aware of Maciel’s misconduct.
The large and enthusiastic crowds at Pope Benedict’s public appearances in Mexico caught many observers by surprise and confounded the expectations of media analysts. A Christian Science Monitor story about the papal visit had encapsulated the usual predictions, saying that “regular Mexicans are hardly paying attention.” While acknowledging that Catholicism remains dominant in Mexico, the Monitor said: “But the current pope has done little to move Mexican Catholics the way his predecessor did—John Paul II often brought the faithful to tears.”
In fact, the crowds at papal liturgies were enormous and warmly supportive. Jean-Marie Guenois of Le Figaro, who has accompanied papal voyages for more than 25 years, observed: “Never in his pontificate has Benedict XVI been acclaimed, applauded, encouraged with such fervor.” The headline on an AP story at the conclusion of the Pope’s stay made the point succinctly: “Pope Benedict wins over Mexico.”