MEXICO CITY – As Mexico prepares to receive history’s first Latin American pope, there’s something new in the air here in terms of church/state relations. For lack of a better word, call it “normality”.

Part of the standard theatre during past papal visits — John Paul II made the first of five in 1979, Benedict XVI went in 2012 — has always been sniping between bishops and politicians, as Mexico’s political establishment bristled at Vatican calls for changes to the country’s fiercely secular constitution.

The constitution of 1917 did not recognize the Catholic Church as a legal entity. But following 1992 amendments recognizing religious associations, today the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) seems not just relaxed, but positively keen on Francis’s visit, seeing it as a benefit not just to the Church, but to Mexican society.

The shift in tone in the run-up to Francis’ Feb. 12-18 outing is all the more remarkable, bearing in mind that the PRI is the modern incarnation of a party that 90 years ago carried out a Soviet-style persecution of the Catholic Church. Until the 1992 reforms, the Church was kept firmly in check with a series of draconian anticlerical laws matched in the region only by communist Cuba.

The restrictions never prevented Mexican Catholics from worshipping and expressing their faith, but bishops critiquing social ills would be sternly lectured that faith was a private matter.

The new winds blowing from the Mexican establishment were evident from a presentation to journalists given Wednesday by the government’s point man for religious affairs, Humberto Roque Villanueva, a political heavyweight who for decades has been at the heart of the PRI.

At times I had to rub my eyes to check it was really a Mexican government official telling us that the government will welcome Pope Francis as a key shaper of public opinion, whose messages on poverty and immigration would be “an incentive to improve public policies.”

It was a far cry from previous papal visits, when government officials spoke of the pope coming to speak to his flock rather than the nation as a whole, and reminding everyone who cared to listen that Mexico was an officially atheist, secularist state.

While the government has no formal part in the papal visit, which is being styled as strictly pastoral, Villanueva explained that on Feb. 13 Francis will become the first pope to be received by a Mexican president in the Palacio Nacional, which in colonial times housed the Spanish King’s viceroy.

There the pope will address diplomats, politicians, businessmen, as well as leaders of Mexico’s other churches and faiths.

In essence, said Villanueva, the government realized that many of Mexico’s ills are the result of a crisis of values, that values were impossible without “spiritual values,” and that Francis is a key shaper of those values.

Villanueva’s remarks came during a day-long series of papal visit media briefings organized by the prestigious Opus Dei-run Universidad Panamericana. I was there to speak on Pope Francis’ reforms.

One of Panamericana’s alumni is none other than Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who appointed Villanueva as under-secretary for population, migration, and religious affairs.

Over a lunch organized by the rector, Villanueva told me that Peña Nieto has a strong faith, even if he has to be careful not to practice it publicly.

In his presentation, Villaneuva admitted that the Mexican state had in the past confused laicismo (aggressive secularism) with laicidad (respectful neutrality).

However, changes introduced by President Carlos Salinas in 1992 stripped out the offensive elements of the 1917 Constitution, and incorporated religious freedom through human rights legislation and further reforms in 2011 and 2013

Nowadays, as Villaneuva colorfully put it, “We are no longer sick with stale Jacobinism, but nor do we smell of the sacristy” — a phrase Pope Francis himself coined.

(“Jacobinism” refers to the radical wing of the French Revolution, known for being aggressively anti-clerical.)

Villanueva summed up his remarks by saying Mexico now has “a legal framework that means Catholics no longer need to be in the closet,” and that church-state relations are governed by “a normality which benefits everyone and which we want to continue.”

Also speaking at the briefing was Jorge Traslosheros, a church historian and Catholic religious freedom expert whom I first met back in 2012, at the time of the tensions over the constitutional reforms.

I sat down with Traslosheros, a researcher at the Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), to check that what I was hearing was real. He confirmed it is. Both Church and Mexican elites are coming together in welcoming Francis in a way that is wholly unprecedented, he told me.

Where previous papal visits were always met by aggressive criticism in the media, he said, “with Francis it’s turning out very different. I am really surprised.”

Traslosheros puts the new mood down to three factors.

The first is Francis himself: A Spanish-speaking fellow Latin-American whom Mexicans feel close to “because we love to be embraced.” Then there is his simplicity. Most Mexican priests are expected to live in poverty, like those they serve, and Francis embodies that “pastoral closeness”.

The second is that Mexican society is becoming more pluralistic at a time of serious social challenges of corruption and violence.

A recent survey put the percentage of Mexicans self-identifying as Catholic at around 80 percent, a significant drop from the 96 percent at the time of John Paul II’s first visit in 1979. (Most of those no longer Catholic are evangelicals, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, while a growing number of young Mexicans — around 5 percent of the population — say they have no religion.)

The greater diversity has allowed the government to recognize religious freedom as part of a gamut of other human rights intended to invigorate civil society.

At the same time, there is a growing awareness on the part of Mexico’s governing classes and intellectuals that its deep-seated social problems cannot be solved by public policies alone.

“Francis’s coming is oxygen,” says Traslosheros. “No one expects him to solve our problems, but there is an expectation that he’ll address them clearly, and give us encouragement and hope to look for new ways forward.”

Third, the Church itself has changed. Traslosheros detects a new awakening of the Catholic laity in response to the Latin-American bishops’ call for missionary disciples, which is now at the heart of the Francis pontificate.

In this regard, it helps to have the new kind of mission-oriented bishop appointed by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis which now makes up a majority of the episcopate.

A rump of old-school bishops known as Sodanistas — those appointed under John Paul II’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano — remains, and their dioceses (not least the biggest and most important of all, the Archdiocese of Mexico) are being consciously ignored in Francis’s itinerary in favor of those on the frontline of Mexico’s dramas.

Traslosheros agrees that Mexico is advancing rapidly towards what Benedict XVI called un estado laico propositivo, or positively secular state, that is, equidistant from all religions and beliefs, but encouraging religious freedom.

Does that mean the juridical framework is now sufficient for the Church to exercise its freedoms?

Although the devil may come later in the details, in general terms Traslosherous believes there is no longer any legal bar to the Church taking its place in Mexican public life.

True, the Church as such cannot own a TV station, but Catholic organizations can and do (EWTN and El Sembrador have cable channels here). And while religious education is banned from public schools, it isn’t from private ones, and even in public schools Mass is celebrated.

All of this adds up to an historic opportunity for the Church. New religious freedoms have been finally recognized at a time of social crisis. As Villanueva made clear, the governing classes no longer see the Church as a threat but an ally in solving Mexico’s deep-seated problems.

The real challenge for Catholics, says Traslosheros, is to seize that opportunity and exercise their freedom and rights.

“A right that isn’t exercised ceases to be a right,” he says. “That’s the real challenge the Church faces: to learn how to be civil society.”

That means fostering “missionary disciples capable of assuming the responsibilities which religious freedom now recognizes.”

That, in a nutshell, is what bishops hope Francis’s visit will help achieve.

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (now out in Picador paperback, with a new, updated epilogue).