ROME — Pope Francis begins a five-day trip to Mexico Friday, after a quick stop in Cuba to meet the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. Once he gets to the United States’s southern neighbor, he’ll face three of the key social injustices he has condemned throughout his papacy: hostility to immigration, criminal violence, and poverty.
The six-day visit will see the pope coming and going from Mexico’s vast capital city to meet impoverished indigenous populations in Chiapas, victims of drug cartels in Morelia, and immigrants and refugees near the US border in Ciudad Juárez.
In many ways, the pontiff’s Mexico trip shapes up as a “greatest hits” collection of his social teaching, to be delivered in the flesh and in his native tongue.
“The pope won’t be going to comfortable places,” said Mariano Palacios Alcocer, Mexican ambassador to the Holy See. “He’s designed a tour that will take him to places that need the support and presence of His Holiness.”
It will be Francis’ fourth trip to the Americas, and in his own words, he’s going “as an instrument of peace.”
Francis will deliver 13 speeches and celebrate three open-air Masses. He’ll meet religious and political leaders, local youth, members of Mexico’s 58 indigenous communities, and undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Upon arriving in the capital on Friday, a vast chunk of the city’s 8.8 million citizens is expected to flood the 12-mile route that separates the airport from the residence of the papal representative in the country, where Francis will sleep during the visit.
Since he’ll arrive after nightfall, organizers are asking Mexicans to bring lanterns or their phones to illuminate the motorcade, aiming to generate a literal “thousand points of light” along the route.
(The initiative is a “Version 3.0” of the farewell St. John Paul II received after his fifth and final visit to the country, in 2002. That time, millions of citizens went up to their roofs to flash mirrors into the sun to say goodbye.)
The last Mexican census in 2010 concluded that 82 percent of the country’s 112 million people are Catholic (down from 87 percent in 2000), confirming that Mexico stands as the second-largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil. That’s despite the fact that the Church faced severe repression from 1917 to 1940, and strict anti-clerical laws weren’t formally repealed until 1992.
As in many countries in the region, the Catholic Church today is losing members to Pentecostals and other Christian churches. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Forum, almost 10 percent of Mexicans today identify themselves as Protestant, most of whom were born Catholic.
Religious change is not the only challenge awaiting Francis.
“The pope comes at a time when Mexico is in crisis,” the Rev. Jorge Martinez of the diocese of Yucatan told Crux. “The country is always in crisis, but at the moment, the government is losing credibility, the groups of power are consolidating in themselves, and poverty is growing.”
Despite the crisis, the country is “excitedly” waiting for the pope, Martínez said, “eagerly awaiting to hear what he has to tell us.”
Francis seems equally expectant, joking with Mexicans who have been to Rome recently participating in his weekly audiences, alternately saying there will be — and then that there won’t be — tequila and chili involved along the way.
Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect.
Although the scheduled stops for the visit, each chosen by Francis, may turn this pastoral visit into a sound-bite machine for political campaigns – both in Mexico and in the United States – the pope has said time and again that he’s traveling, first and foremost, to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe.
He’ll go to the famous shrine dedicated to her on Saturday, where he’ll celebrate a Mass for 40,000 people, plus the hundreds of thousands that will flock to the surrounding area. With 20 million visitors a year, it’s the most-visited pilgrimage site in either North or South America.
Some observers believe that fierce popular attachment to the Virgen Morena (brown-skinned Virgin) is one of the possible reasons for the slower decline of the Catholic population in Mexico compared to the rest of the Americas.
A well-known local line has it that “Mexicans are 90 percent Catholic, but 100 percent Guadalupan!”
Francis asked for his schedule to be cleared after celebrating Mass at the basilica, which will start at 5 p.m. local time (6 p.m. Eastern), in order to make time for private prayer. A Vatican spokesman said this was because the pontiff “didn’t want to feel under pressure because of his program.”
“I would like to ask, as a favor, that this time, which will be the third time I will step on Mexican soil, to leave me a few minutes alone in front of the image,” Francis said in an interview with a local news service ahead of the visit. “Can you do me that favor?”
(In another sign of the pope’s deep devotion to the Mother of God, Francis crossed Rome the day before he left for Mexico, as he does ahead of every foreign trip, to pray before an image of Mary as Salus Populi Romani, or “Protector of the Roman People,” in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.)
On Sunday, the pope will celebrate the first outdoor Mass of the trip, expected to attract the largest crowd of the visit beyond those who will line his motorcade routes. It will be celebrated in Ecatepec, indigenous for “windy hill”, a diocese just outside Mexico City.
During these first two days, the pope is also scheduled to meet Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto – who, coincidentally, is facing a burgeoning scandal about whether an annulment for his wife was obtained using untoward political influence. Francis will also meet representatives of civil society, the diplomatic corps, and the local bishops.
If pressed for an answer, however, the pope would probably say that the second-most important appointment on his Mexico City agenda will be Sunday’s visit to Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital. It will mark the second time a pontiff has called on sick children at the hospital, after John Paul II did so in January 1979.
Palacios told Crux that in Chiapas, Francis will face several realities. The state is one of the poorest in the country, more than 70 percent of its population is indigenous, and Chiapas is part of a “porous” border with Guatemala, making it an entrance door for hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to reach the United States.
In a span of eight hours, the pope will celebrate a Mass in several Mayan languages and address the injustices facing indigenous people, many of whom in recent years have abandoned the Catholic Church for Evangelical congregations and even mosques started by Muslim missionaries.
Two decades after the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous-led rebel group that demanded social, cultural, and land rights, Francis will find that the state and its indigenous population remain firmly on the periphery of Mexican society, with figures that show poverty, inequality, and hunger rates have remained stubbornly high.
In San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Francis will celebrate a Mass at the city’s sports center with Chiapas’ indigenous community. The pontiff has long been an advocate of the “original peoples,” and it’s possible that, as he did in Colombia, he may apologize for mistakes made building the missions 500 years ago.
His homily could also echo his predecessor John Paul II, who on the flight going to Mexico in 1999 said: “The indigenous people were the first owners of the land. There will be no solution [to the Zapatista conflict] until we recognize that the indigenous people were the first owners of the land … The solution must be through dialogue.”
After having lunch with representatives of the indigenous community, Francis will visit the local cathedral.
Martínez believes the legacy of Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, considered a hero of Latin America’s liberation theology movement, is one of the key factors that led the pope to choose this destination. Francis is expected to pray at the tomb of Ruiz inside the church.
Ruiz led the diocese for 40 years until his retirement in 2000. Through his four decades in leadership, he often ran afoul of land-owning elites and politicians, not to mention the Vatican.
Long before the Francis spoke of a “poor Church for the poor” and of taking the Church to the peripheries, Ruiz included in his diocese a ministry for care of Mother Earth, trained local leaders to be social activists, denounced social justices, and incorporated elements of indigenous traditions into the Catholic liturgy.
Ruiz ordained indigenous deacons, a practice that was banned by the Vatican in 2001, but which was recently green-lighted again by Francis.
Ruiz was often branded a Communist, and some observers say that a conference of indigenous people he organized in 1974 was the seed that led to the Zapatista revolution. No one, however, disputes that Francis is going to the Cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas to pay tribute to Ruiz, who died in 2011.
“Unfortunately, [Morelia] is a place famous for its violence and drug trafficking,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, during a Friday briefing ahead of the trip.
The city is the state capital of Michoacan, where narco-violence has claimed thousands of lives and terrorized the population. More than a few parish priests have lost their lives for their strong condemnations of cartel members.
Here Francis will meet with youths and say Mass for the religious community. Giving context to this leg of the trip, a priest said that Morelia will see some of the smallest crowds of the visit, “only the captive audience,” because no one outside of the city dares to travel there with their families.
Drug-related violence will be one of the salient themes in Morelia.
Although it hasn’t generated as many headlines as calling money “the devils dung,” Francis is a major anti-drug crusader who once warned his native Argentina to avoid “Mexicanization,” meaning ever-greater levels of drug production and influence.
Today, Mexico is the largest supplier of methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States. According to a 2013 report from the US Department of Justice, despite the “war on drugs” launched in both countries, production continues to increase.
Officials estimate that the drug trade makes up 3 to 4 percent of Mexico’s $1.2 trillion annual GDP — totaling as much as $30 billion — and “employs” at least half a million people.
Not too long ago, this sprawling border city was known as the murder capital of Mexico, so much so that Texans from neighboring El Paso stopped visiting. In the 1990s, hundreds of young women disappeared, falling victim to brutal robberies and murderous sexual assaults.
That wave of “femicide” was followed by the battling of drug cartel that killed 11,000 people from 2007 to 2013.
On the last stop of his visit, Francis will go to the Cereso prison, one of Mexico’s toughest, considered by many to be a “university for criminal behavior.” Prison conditions are once again in the spotlight after a riot at a Monterrey facility on Thursday, the day before the pope was due to arrive in the country. Dozens are believed dead, marking the latest in a series of violent uprisings, often among members of rival drug gangs, in the country’s overcrowded jails.
At the height of a rancorous US political campaign, with some Republican candidates vowing to build a wall along the nearly 2,000 miles of the US-Mexican border to stop immigration, Francis will make another highly symbolic act in Ciudad Juárez: He’ll take a stand on the fortified US border to pray with a group of migrants who managed to cross it, and now live in El Paso.
Francis will celebrate a Mass at the fairgrounds of Ciudad Juárez, just 90 yards from the border. Some 200,000 people are expected to attend on the Mexican side, and an additional 50,000 across the Rio Grande.
Generally speaking, the people of Ciudad Juárez, El Paso, and nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico, think of themselves as forming one metropolitan area despite the barrier running through the middle.
“This is one community despite the fence,” Lombardi said. “I think it will be moving to see this single community even though it is located on two sides of the border.”
Palacios said that today Mexico is a “petri dish” for immigration, with arguably no better study case. The country has internal migration, those who see the country as a “passing land,” those who arrive to stay, and then there’s forced repatriation.
“Today, Mexico receives more people than those who leave,” said Palacios. “[Barak] Obama’s administration has repatriated 2 million people.”
Francis will be joined by an impressive cohort of bishops from both sides of the border. On the US side, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston will celebrate a Mass for his brother American prelates in an El Paso parish Tuesday morning before leading them across the border.
Two possible shadows
Mexico is one of the countries in Latin America where the Catholic Church has been hardest hit by scandals of clerical sexual abuse. The country is home to the Legion of Christ, a religious order engulfed in controversy after it was revealed that its founder had sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
Lombardi has said, however, that a meeting between Francis and abuse survivors is not on the agenda.
The spokesman also said that the pontiff is not expected to meet with relatives of 43 students from a teacher’s college who disappeared in 2014 and are presumed dead. The case caused international outrage and became an embarrassment to the government, which is anxious to boost Mexico’s attractiveness to foreign investors.
Some family members were given first-row seats in the final Mass, but at least for the moment, nothing more is in the works — although, of course, Francis is forever capable of surprise.
This will be Francis’ 12th international trip since the beginning of his pontificate in March 2013, despite his own claims that he’s not fond of traveling. His next confirmed trips are Poland in July and Sweden in October.