When Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass last Sunday at Guanajuato Bicentennial Park in Silao with hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in attendance, and millions more watching on television, he did so not only as a shepherd communicating with his flock, but as an evangelist for a liturgical reform that is slowly transforming the way Catholics worship.
In sharp contrast with the Masses that Mexicans typically experience in their parishes, the pontiff’s liturgy—including the Scripture readings—was sung in Gregorian chant and other solemn forms of choral music. Moreover, the central and holiest part of the Mass, the canon, was said entirely in Latin.
The pope celebrated before a large solid-block altar adorned on its front with an elaborate silver facade containing a traditional image of Jesus as the Lamb of God in the center. On each side were three large candles, and in the center a crucifix stood, facing the pope, with a small candle next to it. Although many bishops were present in the presbyterum, only two concelebrated with Benedict at the altar.
Although the solemnity and traditional style of the pontiff’s Mass has become familiar to visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope’s way of worship is revolutionary in a land that has long succumbed to modern fashions in liturgical worship. In contemporary Mexico, guitars and entertainment-style musical forms have become common, and choral singing is confined largely to weddings and funerals. Latin has all but disappeared, embraced only by the country’s small but growing traditionalist movement. Mass attendance is in sharp decline.
The venue in which the papal Mass was celebrated was also likely to send a message to Mexicans. Bicentennial Park is situated within eyeshot of the Christ the King monument, built by Catholics following the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church during the 1930s and 40s. Benedict was brought to the site in a helicopter, which flew over the statue before landing close to the park itself. Following the Mass, he presented local Church officials with a mosaic depiction of Christ the King, to be displayed in the sanctuary of Cubilete Hill, where the statue is situated.
Submission to Christ the King
To the crowd of an estimated 650,000 faithful present at the park, the Holy Father gave a sermon recalling the importance of hope in times of distress, and invoking the kingship of Christ as foremost a spiritual phenomenon.
“In this monument, Christ the King is represented. But the crowns that accompany him, one of sovereignty and the other of thorns, indicate that his reality is not as many understood it and understand it. His kingdom does not consist in the power of his armies to subdue others by force or violence. It is founded in a greater power that wins hearts: the love of God that he has brought to the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he has given testimony,” said Benedict.
“This is his authority, which no one can take away nor which anyone should forget. It is therefore just that, above all, this sanctuary should be a place of pilgrimage, of fervent prayer, of conversion, of reconciliation, of the search for the truth and the reception of grace. To him, to Christ, we ask that he reigns in our hearts, making us pure, docile, hopeful, and valiant in humility.”
The pope also recalled the document Disciples and Missionaries of Christ, issued in Aparacedia, Brazil, during his 2007 trip there, which offers an approach to restoring a faith in decline and retreat in the face of modern culture and the rise of Protestant sects, and the Continental Mission, which seeks to implement the document.
“In Aparecida, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean have felt with clearness the necessity of confirming, renovating, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel, rooted in the history of these lands ‘from the personal and communitarian encounter with Jesus Christ, which raises up disciples and missionaries’ (final document 11),” said Benedict.
“The Continental Mission, which is now being carried out diocese by diocese on this continent, has precisely the task of bringing this conviction to all Christians and ecclesial communions, so that they might resist the temptation of a faith that is superficial and routine, sometimes fragmentary and incoherent,” he added.
The pope followed the Mass with the Angelus, prayed completely in Latin, and then a brief discourse on devotion to the Virgin Mary, and in particular the veneration of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reminding the crowd that “to love her is to be committed to listening to her Son, to venerate Guadalupe is to live according to the words of the blessed fruit of her womb.”
However, the pope also reminded the faithful of the danger of excess and superstition in the cult of the Virgin Mary and other saints, a problem often encountered in Mexico, quoting the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, that such devotion “does not consist in a sterile and transitory sentimentalism, nor in a vain credulity, but rather proceeds from a true faith, that brings us to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God and inclines us to a filial love towards our Mother and the imitation of her virtues.”
“Emotional” response from the faithful
The faithful endured high temperatures that required medical attention for an estimated 2, 285 people who fainted, and 35 others who suffered from hypoglycemia or hypertension, but the difficulties of climate did not dampen their enthusiasm, expressed in loud cheers and chants as the “popemobile” wound its way through the crowd, including “We will see Benedict soon!” “Benedict has arrived!” and “We are addicted to Benedict!” all of which rhyme in Spanish.
As the pope ended the day’s events, the faithful also chanted “Long live Christ the King,” a refrain that hearkens back to the Cristero war and church-state struggle of the 1920s and 30s, in which the region’s people played a principal role.
The Mass was attended by President Felipe Calderon, as well as all three major presidential candidates for the elections later this year. Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will represent the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution, and who has previously expressed his support for the legalization of abortion, was heckled by some attendees, who chanted “No to abortion!” and “Yes to life!” as he silently passed.
However, the pope himself defied predictions that he would address bioethical issues such as abortion and the homosexual agenda, to which he made only the most oblique references during his addresses. The decision of the pontiff to avoid such topics may have been due to sensitivity to hot button political issues during the presidential election season, which follows recent conflicts over such matters in which the pope was accused of personally intervening in Mexico’s governance, an accusation denied by the Holy See.
Fr. Padre Gonzalo, a priest who had come to attend the papal Mass from his parish in San Antonio, Texas, told Catholic World Report that the Mass was impressive “for the number of people present, and because of the message of the pope, a message of hope for Mexicans, a comforting message during a time in which Mexicans suffer from problems of criminality and violence.”
An attendee from the state of Veracruz said that it was “a very emotional Mass, in which the principal message is that we have peace, that we always act in peace, and to take the message of peace to where we are,” and another from the state of Guanajuato called the pope’s message “motivating for people, touching somewhat on [the problem of] crime and living more in the love of God.”
New “Mexican pope” leads the faithful in Vespers
The day was closed with a very traditional celebration of vespers in the splendor of the Cathedral of Leon, which was solemnly chanted in Gregorian tones, for the most part in Spanish. The Holy Father again addressed those assembled, repeating the importance of a re-evangelization of Latin America.
The pope encouraged the assembled bishops and clergy to “to look together to Christ who has entrusted the beautiful task of announcing the Gospel among these peoples of robust Catholic roots.”
“The current situation in your dioceses certainly involves challenges and difficulties of diverse kinds. But, knowing that the Lord has risen, we can move ahead with confidence, with the conviction that evil does not have the final word in history, and that God is able to open new spaces for a hope that does not deceive,” he added.
He also recalled the deeply Catholic history of Latin America, noting that “the Catholic faith has significantly influenced the life, customs, and history of this continent, in which many of its nations are commemorating the bicentennial of their independence.”
“It is a historic moment in which the name of Christ continued to shine, having arrived here by the work of distinguished and self-sacrificing missionaries, who proclaimed him with audacity and wisdom. The gave everything for Christ, showing that man encounters in him his consistency and the necessary strength to live in abundance, and build a society worthy of the human person, as his Creator has wished.”
After returning from vespers to his lodgings in Leon’s Colegio de Miraflores, the pontiff was again greeted by large crowds of cheering faithful, moving him to spontaneous remarks in Italian that were translated by an accompanying cleric: “Thank you so much for this enthusiasm. I feel so joyful being with you. I have been on many journeys, but I have never been welcomed with this much enthusiasm.”
Stating that “I can now understand why Pope John Paul II said, ‘I feel I am a Mexican Pope,'” Benedict donned a Mexican sombrero, to the delight of the crowd. The next day he would depart to the music of traditional Mexican songs, such as “Las Mañanitas” and “Cielito Lindo.”
“I wish to reiterate, with energy and clarity, a call to the Mexican people to be faithful to itself and to not allow itself to be terrified by the forces of evil, to be brave and to work so that the vitality of its own Christian roots may cause its present and future to flourish,” he said before boarding the plane to Cuba, the second and last leg of his trip.