In Pope Francis, Mexicans see a leader who will speak to their problems

The pope's agenda – focusing on migration, poverty, violence, and corruption – is likely to rattle both the Mexican government and even the Mexican church.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Signs welcoming Pope Francis decorate the walkway leading to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The pontiff arrives in Mexico on Friday for a week-long visit.

Yolanda Ximénez stands in front of the modern, curving Basilica of Guadalupe on a recent evening, trying to snap the perfect portrait for an exacting tourist. The pews and the plaza are bustling at Mexico’s most popular sanctuary in the lead-up to Pope Francis’ arrival this week, with parishioners entering the church on their knees and event bleachers awaiting the tens of thousands of faithful who will vie see the pope.

Ms. Ximénez, a housekeeper who comes to mass here at least once a month, says she’s keenly anticipating the pontiff’s first visit.

“He has a reputation for speaking his mind. And you know the problems of Mexico. There’s a lot he could say,” she says, referring to high levels of violence, which saw a nearly 9 percent increase in murders in 2015, and the disappearances of tens of thousands of people.

“There’s a lot he probably should say,” Ximénez says, labeling him “much more political” than past pontiffs.

Pope Francis, who arrived Friday night for a weeklong visit, is well known for speaking his mind, whether through directives on climate change or speeches to the US Congress urging care for immigrants. He has signaled that his visit to Mexico will be no exception, saying last week that the "Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of cartels, is not the Mexico that our mother [the Virgin Mary] wants."

While the pope's agenda – focusing on migration, poverty, violence, and corruption – may rattle both the Mexican government and even the Mexican church, it may energize a shrinking Catholic church-going population as well as the many citizens of all faiths who say the government is unresponsive to their calls for protection and justice. It could serve as an admonishment to those in power, and a new approach to addressing Catholics here that could bring believers back to the pews, analysts say.

“Everyone knows there are big problems, but not everybody is paying due attention to them,” says Rodolfo Soriano Nuñez, a Mexican sociologist and author of “Democracy and Religion in Latin America.”

“[Pope Francis] is trying to send a very clear message for a need for the Mexican church to move closer to these issues and closer to people on the margins. And for the government to do the same,” says Mr. Soriano.

The weakening of ties to church

About 9 percent of Mexicans raised Catholic have left the church as adults, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. It’s in line with a broader trend in the region.

“The archbishop of Mexico in recent years has campaigned against the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. It hasn’t had the resonance the church has hoped for, even among the Catholic faithful,” says Matthew Butler, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the lack of impact in terms of drawing people back to church. “Francis could change this narrative.”

The pope’s week-long itinerary is full of politically and socially significant stops: from Ciudad Juarez on the US border, once considered the most dangerous city in the world, to Ecapatec, located in Mexico State, home to the highest incidence of femicides in the country. He’ll also visit Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state and one of the busiest entry points for Central American migrants making their way north, as well as Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, where drug cartels battle for control and frustrated citizens have turned to vigilante justice.

Saul Hernandez Vasquez, who works at a bread factory in Mexico City, says he hopes the pope will speak directly to the government about the problems citizens face. “If he isn’t going to speak out about the violence and the innocent people killed, what’s the point of coming?” he asks on his way out of Mass.

In a recent editorial in Desde la Fe, a magazine edited by Mexico’s archdiocese, the church seemed to lay the groundwork for a politically charged visit.

"Mexico is facing violence and criminal phenomena that appear to be unprecedented in its modern history. These issues make us question the capability of authorities at every level of government,” the editorial reads.

But it may be the Catholic hierarchy that is most under pressure, according to Mr. Butler. Mexico has the second largest Catholic population in the world, and the relationship between church and state was tense starting with Mexico’s 1910 revolution. After relations were repaired in the 1990s, however, it’s been more common to see the Mexican church and government quietly teaming up, rather than Mexican church officials pressuring the government for social change or calling out issues of human suffering at the hands of government action, analysts say. That has rankled many Catholics – including, apparently, Pope Francis.  

The church “has sought political privileges from the Mexican government instead of approaching some of the erosion of its social base,” Butler says.

But for car mechanic Giberto Ramirez, any conversation about the pope as a political force is missing the point.

“He is a divine energy, the representation of Christ,” Mr. Ramirez says. “There’s no place for politics in religion. Leave that to the politicians.”

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