As Pope Francis’ weeklong visit to Mexico draws near, anticipation is building not just for the presence of the Successor of Peter, but also for how he will respond to hot-button topics such as immigration.
“There is a great joy and expectation for the trip of Pope Francis to Mexico. He is the first Latin American Pope, and the Mexican people feel very close to him,” Mariano Palacios Alcocer, Mexico’s ambassador to the Holy See, told CNA in an interview.
One of the most significant moments in the Pope’s trip, he said, will be on the last day when Francis celebrates a U.S.-Mexico border Mass in Ciudad Juárez. Set at Benito Juarez Stadium near the border, the Mass is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from both countries.
“We consider that the theme of migration is an issue that is in the Pope’s agenda,” Alcocer said, explaining that for the Mexican people, the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa, coupled by his constant appeals for migrants and those fleeing persecution is proof that his message is one of “respecting the human dignity of the emigrants and their families,” which the Vatican has always promoted.
He said that while the issue is close to the Roman Pontiff’s heart, Mexicans don’t expect the Pope to give a lecture or to take a political line.
“For us the visit of the Pope is of purely pastoral character and should trigger in the different countries initiatives which are in favor of their citizens.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Mexico Feb. 12-17, just over two weeks from now. In addition to visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he has said is the primary reason for the visit, Francis will also travel to the border U.S. border city Ciudad Juárez, as well as Chiapas, one of the poorest regions in the country.
He follows in the footsteps of his predecessor St. John Paul II, who visited Mexico a total of five times during his pontificate, as well as Benedict XVI, who traveled to the country in 2012.
Mexico, a majority Catholic country, will celebrate 24 years of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in February. Out of the country’s 120 million citizens, 100 million belong to the Catholic Church. With 15 million of these citizens immigrating to the U.S., the Pope’s trip is extremely significant, Alcocer said.
In addition to immigration, the Pope is also expected to address other major topics for Mexico such as the issues indigenous people face, the role of the family, and youth.
Besides the Feb. 17 border Mass, other significant events in Ciudad Juárez will be the Pope’s visit to a prison and his meeting with workers the same day, the ambassador noted.
The visit to the prison, he said, “will be an exercise of mercy for people deprived of their liberty,” and noted that one of the unique qualities of Francis’ visit to Mexico is that it is the first trip he will make during the Holy Year of Mercy.
Francis’ meeting with workers will be an opportune time to address problems related to production, capital, employment and the economy, Alcocer said. The fact that the encounter will take place in Juárez makes it all the more significant, because it sits on “one of the most contrasted borders in the world” in terms of economic development.
“The most powerful economy in the world (sits) on one side of the Bravo River, and the world of development, or of countries on a path of development, on the other,” he said referring to the Rio Grande, which forms the border between the State of Texas and Mexico.
Another important part of the Pope’s trip will be his visit to Chiapas, which is one of the poorest regions in Mexico, the ambassador explained.
The visit is symbolic not only for its historical significance, but also because it serves as a primary entry point for Central American immigrants, who come primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Originally part of Guatemala, Chiapas annexed itself to Mexico in 1824 after the Federal Republic of Central America gained its independence from the First Mexican Empire. Chiapas therefore represents “the first exercise of direct democracy of the Latin American continent … this is a very important historical element,” Alcocer said.
Another important part of the Pope’s visit to the region is his meeting with families, which will take place Feb. 15.
“It’s very important that the national meeting of families also develops in Chiapas, because many of the Central American immigrants, and Mexican immigrants who have to go to the United States, have as a consequence the rupture of the familial nucleus,” he said.
The immigrants who come to Mexico from Central America frequently leave behind their families and board the long train known as “the beast,” which is a network of Mexican freight trains frequently used by U.S.-bound immigrants who want to pass through Mexico more quickly.
However, despite the gravity of issues surrounding immigration and the economy, Alcocer said the most fundamental aspect of the Pope’s trip is his visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe dates back to the 16th century, and surrounds a miraculous image of Mary left on a tilma, made from a piece of poor-quality cactus cloth.
It all started when a “Lady from Heaven” appeared to Saint Juan Diego, a poor Indian from Tepeyac, on a hill northwest of Mexico City. Over the course of a series of apparitions in 1531, the woman, who identified herself as the Mother of the True God, instructed Juan Diego to have the bishop build a church on the site.
As a sign, the now-famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was imprinted miraculously on his tilma. Both the image and the tilma remain intact after more than 470 years.
“The Madonna of Guadalupe is the most prayed to advocate in the whole world,” the ambassador said, noting that the image is especially dear to the Mexican people, who have “a very deep popular piety.”
“The Madonna of Guadalupe is a sociological religious phenomenon that is so important that it actually attracts even non-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics who consider themselves ‘guadalupanos,’” or firm devotees of the devotion.
Mexican society as a whole has a high regard both for Our Lady of Guadalupe as well as for Pope Francis as a religious figure, Alcocer observed.
“This recognition of the fundamental role of the pontiff brings about great expectations of the visit of the Pope in Mexico,” he said, adding that “Mexico was the door to evangelization on the America continent.”