ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pope Francis confirmed on Wednesday that he plans to visit Mexico in February 2016, including a stop at Ciudad Juarez on the US/Mexican border, a gesture clearly intended to express the pontiff’s solidarity with immigrants making their way to America in search of opportunity.
“I’m going to leave through [Ciudad Juarez] because I wanted to enter the United States from this city,” the pontiff said to reporters traveling with him on a six-day swing through Africa. He was referring to his trip to the US last September, when Francis had originally hoped to make a stop at a border destination.
Francis likely will use the stop in Ciudad Juarez to extend the same message of support for immigrants he delivered in the United States.
“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” the pope said on Sept. 26 before an estimated 24,000 people, including scores of Hispanic immigrants, gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
“You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land,” he said.
Although the trip to Mexico had been widely rumored, this was the first time the pope openly confirmed his plans. Speaking to a Mexican journalist, Francis also said that the plan includes stops in four Mexican cities, not three, as was originally thought.
Although it’s too early for the Vatican to release a schedule, Cardinal Alberto Suárez Inda has already said Francis will visit his diocese, Morelia, on Feb. 16.
Speaking to Crux in October when he was in Rome participating in the Synod of Bishops on the family, Suárez said Francis will meet people “who have suffered a lot because of the separation of families as a result of migration, and also with those who have suffered the loss of their family members to violence.”
From Morelia alone, Suárez said, there are more than a million migrants in the United States, many of whom have left spouses and children behind. His city is also one of those most affected in Mexico by organized crime.
The remaining stops on the pope’s itinerary will be Mexico City, as Francis wants to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and, according to local reports, the southern border city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
In Catholic circles, San Cristóbal de las Casas is best known as the diocese of the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz García from 1959 to 2000.
Ruiz’s embrace of liberation theology and advocacy of the causes of indigenous people sometimes made him a controversial figure. In 1993, the Vatican asked him to step down on the grounds that he had polarized the Church, but he defied the request and remained in office.
In that context, Francis’ visit to the diocese likely will be seen as a gesture of outreach to progressive currents in the Mexican Church.
On other fronts, Pope Francis largely shrugged off safety concerns surrounding his Nov. 25-30 visit to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. Fears about security are especially intense for the war-torn Central African Republic, which marks the first time a pontiff has visited an active war zone.
During an informal meet-and-greet on the papal plane, a journalist asked him if he’s afraid for what might happen during his Africa swing, because “there are crazy people [there] who don’t like Christians.”
“There are good people and bad people,” Francis answered.
“To tell you the truth, the only thing I’m worried about are the mosquitoes …. Did you bring your spray?”
Francis will spend two days in Nairobi, Kenya, before heading to Uganda and then finishing in the Central African Republic over the weekend.