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25 March 2012

Despite what the foreign media are reporting (as my Google-search thingy might suggest), Mexico is not in the throes of Papamania by any means.  Benedict’s visit has been on the front pages of the nation’s papers, but not top of the fold, nor has it dominated the news (except on television, and even there, it hasn’t been wall to wall, every channel coverage… my neighbors downstairs were watching cartoons).  Nor is every church in the country Popified… going past Mazatlán’s cathedral this afternoon, there wasn’t any papal banner or indication that the head honcho was in the ‘hood, or that anything unusual was going on.  I’ve been paying probably more attention to this visit than most, and have to say that the enthusiasm has been, if anything, underwhelming.

I wonder if foreign media (and many of our own foreign commentators on Mexico) haven’t presumed that because the country is about 80 to 85 percent Catholic, that means 80 to 85 percent of the people care one way or another about the Pope.

While even the Church had lower expectations for the welcome Benedict XVI would receive compared to that granted the “rock-star Pope,” John-Paul II, I think there may have been a huge miscalculation in how “Catholic” Mexico is on the part of the media and Curia.

The warm reception given to JPII may have been an anomaly… John-Paul having shown up just as two very important changes were taking place.  First, the Mexican state was ready to relax the more onerous restrictions on religious observances and, second, as the Church was becoming more accepting of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic variations among the faithful.

Mexico’s Catholicism has always been described as “syncretic”:  the mixture of folk religions and older faiths have fascinated outsiders for centuries.  That seems to be more an accident of history than anything:  the Americas coming into the Catholic fold late in the history of Christianity (which, after all, had blended in everything from Iranian Mithraism and  Roman and Greek philosophy to various Germanic and Celtic folk-beliefs into a body of customs and practices) did not fit easily into the pan-Euopean assumptions about how Catholicism worked when the Council of Trent wrote the “standard operating manual” for the faithful.

Given the uncertainty of communications and travel until the mid 19th century, it’s not surprising the Mexican Church largely went its own way.  Rome was even further from Mexico than Madrid, and Mexican elites didn’t always pay attention (or give much thought) to what the colonial masters said.  When they did, it was usually because it matched their own interests.  The Church was never able to enforce the new rules in the Americas.   Not only was much of Mexico was beyond their easy reach, and the lower clergy who might, or might not regularly visit isolated communities, included many whose own understanding of their faith included those syncretic, and idiosyncratic Mexican folk beliefs.

At any rate, until the late 20th century, communications between headquarters and the regional offices here wasn’t always that clear, and what the Pope said — or who he was — didn’t always register.  It was only in the late 20th century, with the reforms of the Vatican Council that Mexican Catholicism was accepted into the mainstream, and communications and transportation made Papal pronouncements — and visits — relevant.  John-Paul II’s rock star status here, while due in good part to his own personal charisma, had a lot to do with just the fact that a more conservative government which needed clerical support had come to power (from Salinas onward) and the Papacy was seen as a bulkward against leftist trends within Catholicism that threatened the new elites of the neo-liberal age.  The biggest supporters of John Paul were not the clergy, nor the state, but Televisa, after all.

I don’t know how much the State of Guanajuato spent preparing for the Papal visit, but the state Secretary of Tourism was hoping the three day visit would bring 900 million pesos.  However, while the big event — the papal Mass this afternoon in León’s Parque Bicentenial drew a crowd of 300,000 according to Reuters, and between 400 and 500 thousand according to other news reports (perhaps including people just hoping for a glimpse of Benedict), there’s no indication of how many of the faithful were staying in Guanajunto State, and how many just bused (or drove) in for the day. León is only a short drive from Guadalajara, and the old “Cristero region” extends far into Jalisco and Michoacán, both of which border León. Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times was reporting on Friday that campgrounds for the expected throngs were “virtually empty” on Thursday, but were filling up Friday.

And, it might be added, that while a half million people is a very large crowd, the papal visit was being pushed by what is said to be the most powerful institution in Mexico (I mean Televisa, of course), which has created larger crowds for political events, although those were in Mexico City.

It also has to be noted that not everyone who came to see the Pope came to cheer him.  Besides those seeking an audience for specific grievances against the Church (victims of Marcial Maciel’s Legoinaries of Christ prominent among them, but also women’s groups bringing attention to Guanajuato’s draconian anti-abortion laws, gay and lesbian organizations and various anti-clericals, anti-Catholics and Marxists) there were those who simply came because they had to be there… like PANAL presidential candidate Gabriel Quadri, who apparently sat through the Papal Mass twittering away…

I’m sure there are some who are concerned with recycling the water bottles left behind by the faithful (and are clean-up costs, as well as the value of the recycled plastic, factored into the 900 million the Pope is supposedly generating for the state economy?), but of course, the impact of a Papal visit isn’t measured in terms of economic activity or in numbers of “hits” his visit registers.

The polemical nature of the Pope’s visit, coming as it does just as the pro-clerical party is expected to be turned out of Los Pinos and the traditionally anti-clerical PRI is openly courting Catholic voters, coupled with lingering questions about the role of the Church in Mexican public life, makes what was said and done much more important than the number of people who saw or heard what occurred.  That Felipe Calderón did not kiss the Pope’s ring might not be all that important (although it avoided a public relations gaffe that Vicente Fox was never able to live down) … whatever the Pope and Calderón spoke about privately on Friday is.

Supposedly the two discussed the “drug war”… but if one thinks the Pope may have been lobbying for changes in the Constitution that would allow denominations to own media outlets and openly participate in politics, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that.  As it was, the Pope’s public pronouncements… mostly condemning violence and materialism were bland enough that even Lopez Obrador was able to say… “see, he agrees with me.

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