Friday, March 23, 2012

En Mexico, Siempre Fiel... ¿Pero, A Quien?

Later today, the Pope arrives in Mexico for his second trip to Latin America and first to the global church's second-largest national contingent.

Judging by the build-up, though, you almost wouldn't know it. Or, at least, which one is coming.

By now, it's become a standard element of the script for Benedict XVI's 23 overseas visits that the bar of expectations is conspicuously lowered in the days prior to the pontiff's arrival under the weight of the supposed hurdles ahead. Yet even as no shortage of those have presented themselves this time -- to cite just three, the country's ongoing love affair with B16's predecessor (widely perceived as the "Mexican Pope," his image splayed on billboards for this visit), the lack of a stop at the all-important Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City (now Christianity's most-visited pilgrimage site) due to its altitude and, in the homeland of the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, no plans for a papal meeting with abuse survivors (a call reportedly made by the country's bishops) -- the trip's centerpiece event is still expected to draw a crowd in excess of half a million.

Despite indications of a declining membership -- and, in some areas, the rise of the "Santa Muerte" cult linked to the country's drug trade -- Mexico's roughly 90 million Catholics are outnumbered worldwide only by Brazil's bloc of 130 million. In all, Latin America accounts for roughly half the global fold, which grew by 15 million in 2010 to stand at just shy of 1.2 billion souls. Still, it's a sign of the times that Mexico City -- with over 7 million faithful, often considered the largest diocese in the Catholicverse -- legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

All that said, even a stop on the turf that's revolutionizing Catholicism's demographic face here in the North more than any since the first waves of Irish immigrants transformed a small, fractious Stateside church into the nation's largest religious body in the 1840s has shown itself to be little draw in the face of this visit's second leg, which begins Monday in Santiago de Cuba amid a host of political overtones, and with a Miami delegation of nearly a thousand set to be on hand.

The latter might be Benedict's first trek to a Communist country, but it's not the Cubans who've prepared a gift package of the now-famous red shoes.

After a 14-hour flight, the Volo Papale is set to arrive in León at 4.30pm local time (6.30 Eastern, 11.30 Rome). Following touchdown, no public events are scheduled until Saturday evening, when the pontiff is slated to meet with President Felipe Calderon and greet young people in a city square.

As Sunday also brings just two engagements -- an open-air morning Mass and Vespers with the bishops of Latin America -- it's a notably curtailed dance-card for a Pope who turns 85 next month, and recently became the oldest occupant of Peter's chair since Leo XIII at the turn of the 20th century. Accordingly, while the Passiontide timing is a conspicuous sign of Benedict's drive to make the trip, his return to Rome will bring just a three-day respite before the intense gauntlet of Holy Week.

More as the weekend rolls out.