Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico, which began on February 12, has been received with all of the fanfare expected for a papal visit from one of the most Catholic nations in the world. Just as Mexicans warmly welcomed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so they are also giving a very enthusiastic reception to the current pontiff, who is making a point of focusing on the country’s suffering lower classes. However, in his rhetorical enthusiasm for the poor and downtrodden, the pope is taking a decidedly different tone from that of his predecessors, one that appears to show sympathy for the region’s controversial tradition of liberation theology, as well as other ideologically-charged political causes.
Francis first arrived in Mexico on Friday, after a brief but historical meeting in Havana, Cuba with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. The pope, in a joint statement with the patriarch, made mention of the sufferings of the Christians in the Middle East and of the ongoing attacks against the integrity of the family in Western countries. After an official reception on Saturday by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the pope celebrated mass together with the nation’s bishops in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the national shrine constructed in honor of the image that is most iconic of Mexican Catholicism.
Warnings against “fundamentalism” and culture of violence
The pope’s homily to the nation’s bishops hammered on themes that have become familiar to the Francis pontificate. The pontiff denounced “triumphalism” and “fundamentalism” in religious practice, and emphasized the importance of a personal familiarity with Christ on the part of bishops, who are called to represent the living presence of God to their flock, rather than impersonal recitations of doctrine. God makes himself known, according to Francis, not by a show of force, but through his own humble offering of love.
“Above all, the dark-skinned Virgin teaches us that the only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God,” the pope told the bishops. “That which delights and attracts, that which humbles and overcomes, that which opens and unleashes, is not the power of instruments or the force of law, but rather the omnipotent weakness of divine love, which is the irresistible force of its gentleness and the irrevocable pledge of its mercy.”
While warning against “venturing into expressions of fundamentalism, thus holding onto provisional certainties while forgetting to nest its heart in the Absolute,” the pope encouraged the bishops to embrace a sort of religious populism by way of “a mystagogical catechesis that treasures the popular religiosity of the people.”
The particular social concern the pope raised with the bishops was the culture of crime and violence associated with narcotrafficking and other illegal activities in Mexico, a problem that is increasingly undermining Mexican society. “I am particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money which, in the end, ‘moth and rust consume’ and ‘thieves break in and steal’ (Mt 6:19),” Francis told the Mexican bishops. “I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church.”
Against this tide of perverse commercial activity the pope proposes the strengthening of healthy community ties, particularly families. “Only by starting with families, by drawing close and embracing the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities and by seeking the involvement of parish communities, schools, community institutions, political communities and institutions responsible for security, will people finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened,” Francis told the assembled clergy.
Prayer at the tomb of controversial bishop
However, in his direct addresses to the Mexican people, the pope has touched less on universal themes and more on ideologically-charged issues that tend to fall under the rubric of liberation theology, a tendency that was fought vigorously by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during the papacy of the former.
On Monday, the pope prayed before the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, former prelate of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, a controversial figure famous for his perceived support for neo-Marxist movements in the state of Chiapas, where a military uprising allegedly inspired by his highly politicized pastoral approach took place in the mid-1990s. Ruiz was reputed to encourage a syncretistic approach to indigenous cultural practices, seeking to promote indigenous traditions rather than teaching the gospel to the locals, and resulting in a mixture of pagan and Catholic practices among the Maya of the region that remains to this day. His emphasis on politics was so strong that the sacraments were reportedly neglected by his activist clergy; membership in the Catholic Church plummeted and 30% of children in his diocese were reportedly unbaptized when he left office. He also publicly associated with notorious condemned exponents of liberation theology, such as ex-priest Leonardo Boff and others.
Ruiz’s activities were regarded as so subversive of Catholic doctrine that he was denounced in a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico by Cardinal Bernadin Gantin, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops, and consequently asked to resign by the nuncio in 1993. However, he refused to do so and held out until his 75th birthday, submitting his resignation in accordance with the Code of Canon Law in 1999.
The pope’s embrace of one of the major figures of liberation theology in Mexico follows his eyebrow-raising acceptance of Marxist symbols mixed with the figure of Christ in July 2015, when President Evo Morales of Bolivia gave the pope an image of Christ crucified on a hammer and sickle, the traditional symbol of communism embraced by the former Soviet Union. The pope, who brought the image back with him to the Holy See, explicitly acknowledged in a press conference during the trip that the image was the creation of the neo-Marxist Fr. Luis Espinal, who had embraced a form of liberation theology in the 1980s that was later condemned. Although Francis seemed to distance himself from the Marxist intentions of the symbol, his acceptance of the gift was the cause of much consternation in Latin America.
Emphasis on social justice and environmental themes
The themes of economic and political oppression of the poor and the redistribution of wealth loomed large in the pope’s address to the working-class Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec. The pope presented an economic interpretation of the temptation of Christ by the devil, asserting that “Lent is a time for reconsidering our feelings, for letting our eyes be opened to the frequent injustices which stand in direct opposition to the dream and the plan of God.” The first temptation, in which the devil encourages Christ to make bread out of stones, means “seizing hold of goods destined for all, and using them only for ‘my own people.’ That is, taking the ‘bread’ based on the toil of others, or even at the expense of their very lives. That wealth which tastes of pain, bitterness and suffering. This is the bread that a corrupt family or society gives its own children.”
According to the pope, the second attempt by the devil to tempt Christ by offering him power in exchange for worshipping him, is really about social exclusion: “Vanity: the pursuit of prestige based on continuous, relentless exclusion of those who ‘are not like me.’ The futile chasing of those five minutes of fame which do not forgive the ‘reputation’ of others.”
The pope’s homily at a mass in the predominantly indigenous state of Chiapas on Monday was focused on themes of liberation from socioeconomic oppression and environmental degradation. The pope appeared to compare the indigenous crowd’s condition to the slavery of the Hebrews by the Egyptians, a theme that had also been invoked by Samuel Ruiz. “And here the true face of God is seen, the face of the Father who suffers as he sees the pain, mistreatment, and lack of justice for his children. His word, his law, thus becomes a symbol of freedom, a symbol of happiness, wisdom and light.” Francis then quoted the mythological text of the Maya known as the Popol Vuh: “The dawn rises on all of the tribes together. The face of the earth was immediately healed by the sun,” explaining that “The sun rose for the people who at various times have walked in the midst of history’s darkest moments.”
The pope told the assembled crowd that “we can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history,” and added that “in this regard, you have much to teach us,” asserting that the indigenous “know how to interact harmoniously with nature, which they respect as a ‘source of food, a common home and an altar of human sharing’ (Aparecida, 472).”
“And yet, on many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society.” added Francis. “Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them. How sad this is! How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, ‘Forgive me!’ Today’s world, ravaged as it is by a throwaway culture, needs you!”
At the request of the state’s bishops, authorities in the state of Chiapas reportedly released 124 prisoners associated with political activism in the state. The bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, said that the visit of Francis to Chiapas, “has value, more value, which is justice and fraternity. The pope is coming and if there are no events such as this one, of justice and fraternity there is no reason for him to come, because he’s coming for this reason precisely, to promote more justice.”
Mixed messages on life and family issues
While in the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, on Monday, the pope held a large public audience whose theme is the importance of the family. However, while the pope lauded long marriages and the pro-life commitment of a single mother, he also heard the testimony of a divorced-and-remarried couple who claimed that their second, non-sacramental marriage is “centered on God.”
After congratulating a couple that had been faithful to their marriage for 50 years, the pope was introduced to Humberto Gómez Espinoza and Claudia Castellón Leal, “divorced and remarried, from the Archdiocese of Monterrey,” who have been in a civil marriage for 16 years. Gómez Espinoza explained that while he had never been married, his wife had married in the Church and had several children by her previous marriage. “Our relationship has been one of love and understanding, but we were alienated from the Church,” he told the pope. Recognizing that as “divorced and remarried we can’t receive the Eucharist, but we can receive communion through our brothers in need, our sick brothers, those who are deprived of freedom, and for that reason we are volunteers.”
Gómez Espinoza claimed that “we are blessed because we have a marriage and a family where the center is God,” and Pope Francis seemed to agree. “You pray and you are with Jesus. You are so integrated into the life of the Church.” He approached the couple and gave them a long hug, as sentimental music played in the background.
The pope also received the testimony of a single mother who had repented of having her children out of wedlock, and described her resistance to pressures to abort her children, to the applause of many.
“My childhood was marked by poverty, violence, and being abandoned by my father,” explained 52-year-old Beatriz Muñoz Hernandez. “It made me feel unloved, and led me to fornicate during my adolescence and ending up pregnant on various occasions during my life. I experienced sadness, social rejection, and the most profound loneliness.”
“I was confronted by the love of God through his Church and he rescued me, announcing to me that he loved me, that he did not reject me, and above all that he pardoned me. Being a nurse I was many times offered the opportunity to have an abortion, but God helped me to not allow an attack against the life of my children. . . The temptation of abortion was always presented as an alternative that seemed to solve problems, but with the help of God I have been able to come out the winner in these battles,” she told the pontiff.
“Holy Father, I only ask for your blessing, your prayer, and your strength for the thousands of women who face the false exit of abortion, that they may find, just as I did, a Church that loves them and shelters them.” Francis received this exhortation with a warm smile and embraced Muñoz and her family, as he had Gómez Espinosa and his civil wife.
Today the pope journeys to the city of Morelia in the violence-ravaged state of Michoacan, where a recent uprising against narco-gangs resulted in numerous deaths. On Wednesday the pope will cap off his trip with a visit to Ciudad Juarez on the border with the United States, where he is expected to express solidarity with the vast number of migrants who seek to illegally enter the U.S. on a daily basis.