Like many, I was surprised when I first heard that Pope Benedict XVI would travel to Mexico but not visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The stop was a staple in John Paul II’s trips to Mexico.
Then we learned that it is age and health issues that prevent Pope Benedict from traveling above a certain altitude. Nevertheless, the current pope still ardently desires to travel to Mexico, the Spanish-speaking nation with the largest number of Catholics in the American Continent.
Some say the visit to Mexico and Cuba is the pope’s way to encourage and confirm in the faith the largest and the smallest of the Lord’s fold in Spanish-speaking America, as if embracing in that gesture the rest of Latin American countries within the spectrum.
There may be some truth to it. But I am also convinced that choosing Mexico—and León, Guanajuato, in particular—is not a coincidence. The setting is symbolic.
When the Pope addresses the crowds, as well as civic and religious authorities, in Mexico he will do so at the feet of a national monument to Cristo Rey (Christ the King). Those who know Mexican history — particularly the history of Catholicism in Mexico—know the significance of the cry “Viva Cristo Rey!” It evokes the memory of a people who, at times, have had to defend their faith even to the point of shedding their blood, particularly the martyrs of the Cristero wars.
The Basilica of Guadalupe, on the hill of Tepeyac, is the spiritual center of Mexico; Guanajuato is the geographical center. So, from the heart of Mexico and with Cristo Rey watching over him, Pope Benedict will highlight and appeal to another, very important element of Mexico’s Catholic identity: the cristero movement and its spirituality.
In the spirit of the New Evangelization, Benedict is calling Mexicans to reclaim their faith, to declare without fear that Jesus Christ is King. That Christ, head of the Church, continues to be the head and the light of a people who, over the centuries, have known how to defend their faith.
The faith in Mexico has survived and thrived in very difficult circumstances: The church had controls imposed by the government in the 1860s and was totally excluded from public life with the Constitution of 1924. The government expropriated church properties, denied the church access to public forums, and even did not allow the church to run schools (though, after the war, there were concessions in this area). Priests were denied the vote. They could not dress in clerical garb except inside churches. It was only very recently, 1993, that the constitution was changed.
So how, after almost 150 years of exclusion, is Mexico able to remain one of the most Catholic countries in the world? Experts point to a four-fold explanation: first, the Guadalupe event touched the hearts of the indigenous people and did for evangelization what decades of catechesis by missionaries were unable to accomplish on such a large scale; second, the faith found fertile soil in both the indigenous and the Spanish colonizers, who were profoundly religious people; third, due initially to the faith of the conquistadors and then to the prohibition of religion in the public sphere there were no other religious groups; and finally, the people committed to Cristo Rey who showed resilience and endurance. All of this has produced a spirituality that identifies with the suffering Christ, the Son of Mary, and the Liberator of the oppressed.
Still, Mexico has not been immune to secularizing efforts. There is a general sense of loss of traditional values, particularly the respect for the life and dignity of the human person. The rampant violence and disregard for human life in parts of Mexico, not just along the border, is only one example. Recent pro–abortion legislation is another.
So, yes, the Pope goes to Mexico to be with the faithful and the Mexican people in difficult moments of trial and violence, and to support the local Church’s effort to promote peace and reconciliation. Looking at the symbolism of the setting, one can also see Papa Ratzinger, the old university professor, wanting his audience to draw one more lesson (or at least more than one.)
And whether the Messenger of Peace actually shouts “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or not during his visit to León, by his mere presence and the chosen setting, in fact, he already has.
Mar Muñoz-Visoso is executive director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops