As Pope Francis reaches Chiapas, on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, it is clear that this apostolic voyage is as much about bolstering the Latin-American Church as it is about evangelizing the nation.
His messages over the weekend in Mexico City — beginning at the presidential palace, and at two major liturgies in the Basilica of Guadalupe and Ecatepec — did not shirk the deep challenges facing this country: drug cartels, human trafficking and violence were all mentioned in his address to President Enrique Peña Nieto and political leaders on Saturday morning, as well as in the homilies at the Basilica and Ecatepec and yesterday’s Angelus. Both in his official address as well as in off-the-cuff remarks to Mexico’s politicians — which have been leaking out in the papers here — Francis has encouraged them to debate fiercely but work together.
Yet what really stands out from the weekend is his 47-minute address to the bishops in Mexico City’s cathedral on Saturday morning. It is one of the longest and most searing of his pontificate, and is clearly intended not just for Mexico but for the Church in the whole of Latin America and beyond.
Mexico is not just another Latin-American country. It is the birthplace of the Church in the continent in the heartland of one of the world’s greatest ancient empires. Mexico was site of a massive collective trauma — the Spanish conquest — as well as of the greatest evangelization story in the history of the world, sparked by the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego just ten years after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire.
The Guadalupe story has deeply influenced Pope Francis’s view of the Latin-American Church and its place in the continent’s history and present — which is why he was so keen on Saturday afternoon to spend time in prayer before the tilma, or cactus-fibre cloth, which bears the miraculous image. (On Francis’s love affair with Our Lady of Guadalupe,read Inés San Martín at Crux).
The Guadalupe story continues to be a template for the Church that after the Second Vatican Council the Latin-American Episcopal Council, CELAM, in its great assemblies at Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979), sought to forge. It is a vision of the Church as close to the poor, pastoral, missionary and merciful; the Church that values the country’s native heritage, and that rather than riding roughshod over indigenous culture, builds it up, creating a new civilization born of the Gospel seed planted in native soul.
“On that morning,” said Francis of Our Lady’s appearing in Tepeyac, “God awakened the hope of his son Juan, and the hope of his People. On that morning, God roused the hope of the little ones, of the suffering, of those displaced or rejected, of all who feel they have no worthy place in these lands.”
The Guadalupe story, in short, is the vision of a Church “of the poor, for the poor” of which Francis spoke following his election.
To be clear, this is a far cry from the so-called “Church of the people” idea which in some Marxist-influenced strains of liberation theology demonised the hierarchy, or Rome. Those strains of liberationism tended to despise the popular religiosity of Guadalupe, putting its faith not in Our Lady’s message as much as in political revolution.
But it is also a vision distant from the kind of Church embodied by certain bishops who are naturally at home in the world of politics and money, and who in Mexico were associated with the corrupt nexus around the Legionaries of Christ founder, Marcial Maciel, in the last years of St John Paul II.
As John Allen puts it, “many Catholic bishops in Mexico have been closely aligned with traditional centers of wealth and political power, and that legacy is alive and well today.” Allen goes on to refer to “the still-strong constituency within the bishops that prefers to move in VIP circles and to condemn the evils of a secular state rather than engaging concrete problems on the ground.”
Without ever mentioning those bishops by name, Francis had eight strong messages for them — and invitations to the whole Mexican Church.
First, that the Church evangelizes by embodying mercy. “La Virgen Morenita teaches us that the only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God,” Francis 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.”
Second, that the faith of the Mexican people itself contains the seeds of the renewal of the Church. “I invite you to begin anew from that need for a place of rest which wells up from the spirit of your people,” he told them, adding later: “Bow down then, quietly and respectfully, towards the profound spirit of your people, go down with care and decipher its mysterious face.”
The Church will grow, in other words, by close contact with its faithful people, rather than through links to power and wealth.
“We do not need “princes”, but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses,” Francis said, adding: “Woe to us pastors, companions of the Supreme Pastor, if we allow his Bride to wander because we have set up tents where the Bridegroom cannot be found!”
In harsh words aimed at those involved in shady deals with Mexico’s powerful, and who were involved in covering up Maciel’s abuses, Francis was all too clear.
The Church does not need darkness to carry out her work. Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhand agreements; do not place your faith in the “chariots and horses” of today’s Pharaohs, for our strength is in “the pillar of fire” which divides the sea in two, without much fanfare (cf. Ex 14:24-25).
Third, the Mexican people have the right to expect of their pastors that they know Christ, and speak from that knowledge, rather than adopt the harsh rhetoric of an elite discourse that yearns for a past of privilege. “If our vision does not witness to having seen Jesus, then the words with which we recall him will be rhetorical and empty figures of speech,” he said, adding: “They may perhaps express the nostalgia of those who cannot forget the Lord, but who have become, at any rate, mere babbling orphans beside a tomb.”
Fourth, it requires the bishops to speak out courageously in defence of the poor against the powerful — which in today’s Mexico means among others the drug cartels. Francis called for “a prophetic courage as well as a reliable and qualified pastoral plan” to combat the threat.
Fifth, it means valuing and building Mexico’s native peoples, as Francis has been doing today in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. “The indigenous people of Mexico still await true recognition of the richness of their contribution and the fruitfulness of their presence,” he told the bishops — a message he has underlined in today’s homily.
This emphasis also allowed Francis t0 weigh firmly into the question of Mexican Catholic identity, too often trapped between the secularism of the 1910 Revolution and a restorationist fundamentalism.
Instead, Francis suggested, look to the true roots of Mexican Catholicism in the traditional faith of popular religiosity. “Never cease to remind your people of how powerful their ancient roots are, roots which have allowed a vibrant Christian synthesis of human, cultural and spiritual unity which was forged here.”
And he called explicitly for “a mystagogical catechesis that treasures the popular religiosity of the people,” for “our times require pastoral attention to persons and groups who hope to encounter the living Jesus.”
Sixth, he called on the bishops to spearhead a pastoral conversion, in which the Church’s credibility as pastors derives from their closeness to the people. “Only a Church able to shelter the faces of men and women who knock on her doors will be able to speak to them of God,” Pope Francis said.
Seventh, he called for a Church focussed on mission, asking bishops “not to spare any effort in promoting, among yourselves and in your dioceses, a missionary zeal, especially towards the most needy areas of the one body of the Mexican Church.”
“To rediscover that the Church is mission is fundamental for her future,” he went on, “because only the ‘enthusiasm and confident admiration’ of evangelizers has the power to attract.”
This will require committed lay people. “I ask you, therefore, to take great care in forming and preparing the lay-faithful, overcoming all forms of clericalism and involving them actively in the mission of the Church, above all making the Gospel of Christ present in the world by personal witness.”
Being close to the people, deeply involved in their lives and sufferings as is the Virgin of Guadalupe, means making pastoral care of migrants a priority, in collaboration with the US Church.
“Your efforts will not be in vain when your dioceses show care by pouring balm on the injured feet of those who walk through your territories, sharing with them the resources collected through the sacrifices of many,” he said, adding: “The divine Samaritan in the end will enrich the person who is not indifferent to him as he lies on the side of the road.
In a sense, then, Francis’s vision for the Mexican — and therefore the whole Latin-American Church — is straightforward: look to La Morenita, not to the powers of this world.
Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. This article first appeared on its website.