Pope Benedict XVI begins a visit Friday that takes him to Mexico, a country with around 100 million Catholics, and to Cuba, a place where church leaders have played an increasingly active role in seeking change.
There are sensitive issues in both countries that the pope is likely to address in some form. In Mexico, it’s the brutal drug war that has claimed roughly 50,000 lives over the past five years.
In Cuba, where the pope travels Monday, the church has regained some of its former prominence and has been involved in a dialogue with President Raul Castro and his government.
In Mexico, even the criminal gangs, which know how to get their message out, are welcoming the pope. In the past episodes of intimidation, the narcos have lined up a series of human heads outside a slaughterhouse and piled human corpses outside a convention where prosecutors gathered.
But for the arrival of the pope, an off-shoot of the La Familia cartel this week strung up 11 banners around the city of Guanajuato welcoming Benedict and declaring that they won’t attack their rivals during his visit.
The local archbishop, Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago, has called on people not to be afraid of narco-violence during the three-day event.
The archbishop says he is not afraid that anything will happen during the papal visit. And he says he’s aware of the extensive security that has been put in place to protect both the pope and the public.
Pope Benedict is visiting Mexico in part to shore up the church’s support in a strong bastion of Catholicism.
In the 2010 census, 83 percent of Mexicans identified themselves as Catholic. And in terms of sheer numbers of followers, the only country in the world with more Catholics is Brazil, which Pope Benedict visited in 2007.
Speaking this past Sunday at the main cathedral in Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera said the pope is coming to reinforce Mexicans’ faith and hope during a very difficult time for the country.
“In these times, as the country is overshadowed by sin, violence, corruption and a social disintegration,” the cardinal said, “the pope will remind Mexicans of God’s power to offer guidance and salvation.”
Addressing Drug Violence
Church officials say the pontiff is expected to directly address the drug violence that has been plaguing Mexico.
This message will resonate throughout the region, says Rick Jones, the deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice with Catholic Relief Services, based in El Salvador.
Jones says that from Colombia through Central America all the way to the U.S. border, drug cartels have been terrorizing communities. Especially in parts of Mexico where the gangs have waged a protracted, brutal war against the state, he says it has caused people to lose faith in humanity.
“Every time I talk to people in Mexico, they question themselves rhetorically, ‘What’s happened to us? Why are we shooting at one another?’ People are looking for some ethical direction. And I think the church still has a role to play in that,” Jones says.
Jones says the Catholic Church still has a lot of credibility in Latin America. He expects the pope to underscore during this visit how the church can help confront the terror that is currently being spread by organized crime.
“A call for coming together, overcoming fear [and] mistrust is an important role that I think the pope will have in ushering that call,” he says.
The pope’s itinerary includes a meeting Saturday with President Felipe Calderon. On Sunday he’ll hold an open-air mass on a hillside under a towering statue of Christ. Organizers are expecting several hundred thousand Catholics from all over the region to attend.