ROME – Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City, now a key figure in the Church of Latin America, says he finds it hard to believe that the president of any country would think it’s a good idea to separate children from their parents as the family tries to emigrate, as was the case last week on the United States-Mexico border.
Appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Mexico City, with some nine million people, late last year, the prelate said that when faced with the pictures coming from the border he feels “what we all feel, because we have all been children.”
“It is a regrettable misfortune that this happened,” Aguiar Retes told Crux on Monday. “It is unthinkable that a president of any country, but more so that the president of the most powerful country in the world, came up with this.”
The reference was to U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which critics including the U.S. Catholic bishops fault for resulting in family separations.
Aguiar Retes was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016 and appointed to replace Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera last December.
Among other things, he spoke with Crux about the situation of the archdiocese, a recent announcement that the local Church is going to work together with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to fight clerical sexual abuses, and the role of women in the life of the Church.
Aguiar Retes is in Rome this week to participate in the consistory for the creation of new cardinals. He sat down with Crux on Monday afternoon. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: You took possession as head of the Archdiocese of Mexico six months ago. What do you see as the biggest challenges?
Aguiar Retes: The city of Mexico has approximately 9 million people. Catholics are a little bit over 80 percent, lower than the national average, which is close to 84 percent. Interestingly, it contrasts even more with the environment from which I come, which is the ring around Mexico City, which has a population of 14 million. Here, Catholics make up 85 percent of the population.
I’m pointing this out because this is one of the challenges we have: Why, if we are in the same valley, has the percentage descended in Mexico City, when in the surrounding area not only has it not fallen, but it exceeds the national average?
There are many factors to explain this reality. One of them is that in the ring the “provincial” model is still a way of life, where the neighbors know each other, where there is a closer relationship among the members of the community, and that facilitates the work of the Church. However, in the metropolis, what happens is comparable to other cities in the world, with anonymity being very common, and one seldom knows one’s neighbor, and families live far apart.
This has meant that the sense of belonging to a parish or a community, which are key to Church life, has been diluted in practice.
The second challenge is the very organization of the archdiocese. For more than 30 years, it has sought to be decentralized, seeking to be closer to the people, and also the bishop closer to the priests. Some 30 years ago, episcopal vicariates were formed as managerial teams. And for the past 25 years, they were usually coordinated by an auxiliary bishop, who responded to the cardinal.
However, now there is a visible fragmentation, with one vicar not knowing what the other one is doing, so we basically had eight mini-dioceses walking in parallel with the cardinal as the official representative.
Hence my proposal is the possibility of generating three new dioceses and leaving five vicars, with a much more accessible size that will allow me to know the parishes with their vicars and ministers. And at the same time, we need to generate a close relationship with the new dioceses to face all the challenges we have in common as Mexico City.
The third problem is that at this moment the flowering of priestly vocations has been weakened. A quarter of the current seminarians come from other dioceses. They are not from our parishes. And in the clergy, a third is diocesan, the rest are religious. This means that we have not been able to have a vocational youth ministry where vocations flourish in the life of our Church.
I believe that this initiative of the new dioceses will allow the implementation of some projects, including a joint vocation ministry. We must work on new vocations before we reach an extreme point. At the moment it is manageable, but in a few years it will not be enough.
Another challenge is that Mexico City has become a city of great mobility, where this great ring that we spoke of becomes a residential area, of people who come to work in Mexico City, with a daily mobilization of millions of people. These are people who come to work inside the city. Therefore, there are people who take between two and four hours to go and return from home to work. There’s no time for pastoral work or participation in the pastoral life of the parishes. This causes people to distance themselves a bit from their Catholic spirituality, leaving it for occasional moments.
To face this challenge, we are creating four personal parishes to take our services with priests to the same companies or work units. That is, if people do not go [to church] for various reasons, the church goes to meet them. We are going to create four already and others have been requested, in companies where they are going to cater to the Catholics of that company, also to take care of their children or relatives when they are in hospitals, so that they have someone to turn to when they need it, and re-create this synergy that the Church has always had in Mexico, the closeness of the priests with their faithful.
Since becoming the head of the Archdiocese of Mexico City, the importance you assign to laity, in particular to women, is evident, with Marilú Esponda as coordinator of communication. Why is that?
I have always believed in the need for women to have a public role, and that there are positions in which women play the role better than men. And I believe that the area of communication is one of them. I knew Marilú since she helped me in the episcopal conference as a spokesperson. The first time I offered her the position, she declined it. That first time, I said, you have finished your studies in communication, now work for the Church. But she resisted, she told me, “I am a woman,” and I told her that this is not a defect, on the contrary, it is a virtue.
And now that they named me archbishop, I called her again. But I didn’t arrive alone, but with another partner who also collaborates in the coordination team, Marimar Chapa, and both have been starting work in the field.
Another field that is very important is the participation of women in priestly formation. We made an introduction in this new school year that begins in September so that there is a doctor in psychiatry and psychology to accompany the training process. I believe that this feminine presence is very important throughout priestly formation. And in that way, we will be putting together the teams to get ahead with the great challenges.
From the moment you took office as archbishop of Mexico City, you have spoken very clearly on the matter of zero tolerance in cases of clerical sexual abuse. How big is the challenge of fighting clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese?
I believe that the condition in which priests work today has, like family and society, a more individualistic tendency, without the warmth of a community or neighborhood as it once did, and this affects the priests very much, leaving them more exposed.
The small communities the Church was traditionally designed to have because of the parish structures could provide the priests with the warmth and the relationship of a Christian community. People knew their priest, and he was close to them. This was a relationship that helped priests live their celibacy because there are some healthy affective expressions that strengthen the individual very much.
Moreover, they give satisfaction because there is a relationship of trust, of collaboration, for instance in the task of helping a member of the family or of society when they have a problem. This is expressed with gratitude, friendly relations, a greater participation of the life and mission of the Church.
This is something that in Mexico City is going down, so there are more risks to the celibate life. This is reflected not only in the unfortunate case of pedophilia, but also in sexual relationships that should not happen, or abuse with other things such as alcohol, which is harmful and impairs the ability of a person.
On the other hand, for a person who is in a healthy affective environment, all those risks decrease, and the spirituality is strengthened, and then the priest becomes stronger and becomes more effective.
That’s the risk of big city anonymity. And in the face of this challenge, the proposal we are making, to help the faithful, are pastoral units, meaning three to five parish priests who are from neighboring parishes and identify with a social zone forming a pastoral unit that has a coordinator. We would try for them to live in a common house, where there is human warmth and the normality of everyday relationships, such as sitting down to eat and not being alone, to be able to dialogue and exchange the activities of the day. I think it will help us a lot to maintain the spirituality and celibacy of our priests.
Recently the archdiocese announced that it will work with SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Why the importance of taking this step?
At least in Mexico, the man who presides over SNAP, Joaquín Aguilar, is a victim himself. But as soon as he heard my initial proposal to fight against pedophilia and in favor of zero tolerance, he approached us. Several meetings took place, and soon after the initial one, the first case happened [a priest was suspended weeks after Aguiar took office, due to credible allegations of sexual abuse]. We acted on it, and this convinced Joaquín even more of the need for us to work together.
This helped both sides to discover we are not enemies, but that the enemy is outside: It’s pedophilia. And we have in common the fact that the Church does not want pedophiles, and the victims do not want these regrettable events to ever be repeated.
We are not on opposite sides, but we have the same will to end an evil that worries us. Hence the closeness we have forged in recent months.
These days we saw some extremely difficult images on the border of Mexico and the United States. What do you feel when you see those images, or when you get an update on what is going on?
I feel what we all feel, because we have all been children. Nothing makes a child cry more than being separated from their mother, even more so when it’s amidst strangers.
It is a regrettable misfortune that this happened. It is unthinkable that a president of any country, but more so that the president of the most powerful country in the world, came up with this. Evidently, the international pressure was very strong.
Providentially, we had a meeting between Mexico and the Holy See on immigration here in the Vatican at the same time, and I believe that this gave great strength to public opinion and the Mexican government to achieve what was achieved, stopping President Trump’s decision.
Thanks be to God, it’s over, but now we have to attend to those children who suffered this drama, which is a wound that will remain inside those little ones forever.
And the immigration crisis continues …
Yes. The crisis is not resolved, this one point, that is very, very painful, has been resolved, thanks be to God, but the problem is there, latent.
How important is it for the Church in the United States and Church in Mexico to work together to try to help these people who are fleeing from the south to the north?
I believe that the Church is an institution that can greatly help citizens understand that immigrants are not criminals going to the United States because they feel like it, but because they have no other option in their lives.
The immigrant seeks a dignified life and therefore moves, trying to find a way to support the family and live their lives. I believe that the more efforts the Church makes from both sides of the border, the more it will help the conscience of civil society.