From February 12 to 17, Pope Francis visited Mexico both as head of the church and as head of the Vatican. Expectations were enormous, as much for Mexico’s government as for the church and its followers, of which there are some 100 million—a number that, as a percentage of Mexico’s population, has diminished from 95 percent to 84 percent in the last 25 years.
As a liberal and a reformer in a Catholic church that has been retrograde and conservative, Francis disappointed those who were hoping he would discuss child abuse and clerical pederasty and speak of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of Legionarios de Cristo who was linked to the rich and powerful and whose abuses were not recognized until shortly before his death because he was protected by Pope John Paul II. The Pope also neglected to speak on a burning issue in Mexico—the 43 students of Ayotzinapa who disappeared—nor did he talk to their parents, who begged him for an audience. It would appear he had an agreement with the Peña Nieto government to omit that, and instead to visit emblematic places of violence: Iztapalapa, Chiapas, Michoacán and Ciudad Juarez.
He spoke as a head of state before an elite audience of politicians and the super-rich at an event at the national palace, disavowing corruption and hypocrisy and championing human rights and good government. No one seemed to react as if he were really addressing them. During his automobile trips and open masses, he was always cheered by crowds who were severely controlled and even repressed, to the point that there was no incident of protest except in places out of his sight.
In the Metropolitan Cathedral, he spoke forcefully to the leaders of the Mexican clergy and its top representative, Cardinal and Primate Archbishop of Mexico Norberto Rivera Carrera. He ordered them to discard luxury, laziness and the easy life and to “fight like men” defending Christian values of humility. Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine Pope, belongs to an ideological group opposed to the ideas promoted by John Paul II, whose papacy lasted 27 years. With some exceptions, most of the Mexican ecclesiastic hierarchy belong to the latter group.
Although Rivera Carrera officially host the Pope and accompanied him on his travels, he had no private audience with him, as did other bishops closer to the poor. In spite of Francis’s strong and profound pleas of forgiveness to the Indians and to accept homosexuals, he didn’t seem to want to get involved in ideological controversies, falling back on spiritual anomalies. He said his visit was illuminated by the Virgen de Guadalupe, whose shrine he visited on the Hill of Tepeyac. Her basilica is visited by millions of pilgrims every year, and is the most-visited religious sanctuary in the world, surpassing even Mecca.
The political and media impact of the visit was enormous. The two commercial television networks had the captive attention of millions, manipulating them at will for several days, while the public channel 11 presented a non-religious but very analytical picture for a small but thinking audience. In the United States, the commercial Spanish language stations, including CNN, almost replicated the actions of their Mexican counterparts. Something similar occurred with the print media, although they were somewhat more critical. The new cyber media gave space to more diverse opinions, including many against the papal visit and even Catholicism, not to mention religions, politicians and corporations in general.
Peña Nieto’s government and administration took advantage of the visit, as did the state and local governments of the places Francis visited. Strong antiterrorist-style control was imposed everywhere; so, thanks to the visit, Mexicans were somewhat distracted, perhaps forgot their terrible reality, and stopped criticizing their corrupt and deficient governments for a moment. The authorities demonstrated kindness toward the Pope and tried to get as close to him as they could. They used public money for personalized welcome billboards and the repair of streets, stadiums and airports where he would visit.
Trying to outdo each other in this category were not only the President, but also the governors of Chiapas and Michoacán and the mayor of Mexico City. Add to that other mayors and various politicians and popular representatives, along with their spouses, children and close relatives. It’s obvious the Pope is no ordinary visitor.
There is no other important dignitary in the world who is, at the same time, a leader of a major religion as well as a head of state. The Vatican is a sovereign nation with territory in an enclave of Rome, and is the Holy See of the Catholic church. The Pope has authority over the world’s representatives of that church. Bishops, archbishops and other priests and nuns are appointed, removed, punished or rewarded under the Pope’s authority, often bypassing local laws.
The visit touched many, but for others it aroused a spirit of critical reality.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-long ties to the Light. The Spanish version of this column is available online.