When Pope Francis travels to Mexico Feb. 12-17, he will visit six cities — including two in the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state — and will celebrate a Mass in Ciudad Juárez across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The first pope from Latin America, where 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live, he will be touring the country that’s home to the second largest Catholic population in the world.
According to Timothy Matovina, professor of theology and co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, “the fervent response in Mexico during previous papal visits will no doubt be surpassed to welcome the first Latin American pope. This is a defining trip for the papacy of Pope Francis, as he will be able to address concerns ranging from immigrants to drug cartels to government corruption and the need for responsible leadership. He will also have ample opportunities to engage in his memorable gestures during visits to native peoples, to the U.S.-Mexican border, and to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most frequented shrine in the hemisphere.”
“All in all, Pope Francis and the Mexicans both should be ready to be changed by this historic encounter,” said Peter J. Casarella, associate professor of theology at the Notre Dame. “Last March, Pope Francis spoke to the Mexican reporter Valentina Alazraki of Televisa and confessed his eagerness to enter Mexico through the U.S. border, his love for La Morenita, his concern about the growth of evangelical Christianity in Mexico, and his fondness as a child for the actor Cantinflas.”
“In the last 11 months, the expectations of the Mexicans and the world have only risen. Pope Francis knows that the stakes are high. The practice of Catholicism in many parts of the country is in need of renewal. His speech to civil society will allow him to speak about transparency and accountability in the public sphere. His visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe will confirm that the Argentine Pope’s heart is very close to that of the Mexican people, but the apostolic journey will be by no means sentimental and merely pious.
“The cross-border Mass at Ciudad Juarez/El Paso, Texas, will symbolize the pope’s solidarity with those migrants caught in the desert between the two countries," Casarella said. "He will also be able to speak to the ‘feminicide’ — the mass murder of innocent women — that has taken place in Ciudad Juarez. The homily of the pope when he is among the indigenous people in Chiapas could strike another note of solidarity, one which he has displayed, for example, in his speech last July in Bolivia at the World Meeting of Popular Movements.”
Luis Ricardo Fraga, Arthur Foundation Endowed Professor of Transformative Latino Leadership, Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame, noted that Pope Francis’ visit underlines the historical complexity of the relationship between the Mexican people and the Catholic Church. “It was Spanish colonizers who brought Catholicism to Mexico and used it to both justify the conquest of its indigenous peoples and to claim that the indigenous, as children of God, had the right to be converted to Catholicism,” Fraga said.
“The challenges that Mexico continues to face regarding economic development and income disparity are directly aligned with the agenda Pope Francis has established for today’s Catholic Church. His messages of a preferential option for the poor and the need for greater stewardship of the world’s natural resources directly relate to the lives of the citizens of Mexico. These messages should be very well received by many of Mexico’s Catholic faithful.
“Moreover, it is important to see if his declaration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a year of consolation and forgiveness, will have any impact on redirecting the ways that ever-growing narco trafficking has led to death, exploitation and fear for many Mexicans. Moreover, it will be just as important to see if his message of mercy will have any impact on the growing challenges that Mexican and Central American migrants face as they attempt to come to the United States to build futures for themselves and their families. His decision to visit Juarez, Mexico, will give him a direct opportunity to influence how governmental leaders in the U.S. and the general American public respond to undocumented immigrants.”