Pope Francis to Mexico: lift up the poor, the forgotten

By Christopher Lamb
Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pope Francis greets a sick child during a visit to the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital of Mexico in Mexico City Feb. 14.(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY —He might be the first Argentinian to be bishop of Rome but it is Cuba that could start claiming Pope Francis as one of its own. Francis has not only helped solve the long-standing diplomatic impasse between the country and the United States, but has now visited Cuba twice. The most recent visit took place Feb. 12 when the pope made history by meeting Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for two hours of talks in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

It was an encounter that many see has importance in ending the 1,000-year rift between Eastern and Western Christianity, which followed the great schism of 1054.

While the de facto leader of eastern orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, it is the Russians who hold the power and influence. That is why the Holy See and the pope worked hard for a year to make the meeting happen. Any encounter had to take place in a neutral venue, and Patriarch Kirill happened to be visiting Cuba at the invitation of President Raul Castro around the time Francis was due in Mexico.

The fact that the meeting took place in Cuba — rather than in a traditionally neutral venue such as Switzerland or Austria — further demonstrates the desire of this pope to shift attention away from the old power centers.

Following their discussions, the pope and the patriarch released a long joint declaration. It focused on the need for action to help persecuted Christians and to bring peace to the Middle East, particularly Syria, where Russian military intervention has been criticized for helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The statement also strongly defended religious freedom, and stressed that marriage is between a man and a woman, but it said little about climate change, one of Francis’ signature issues. This came as a surprise, given the fact that the pope collaborated with the Orthodox on the issue (there is now a World Day of Prayer for Creation on the Catholic and Orthodox liturgical calendar).

Still, credit should be given to Pope Francis for managing to engineer the meeting at all. It could pave the way for an even more historic papal trip to Russia, where the pope has said he would like to visit. Francis, it seems, is willing to “go over to the other side” when it comes to diplomacy.

For example, in an interview with the Asia Times last month, the pope praised the Chinese regime and said the world should not fear the country’s growing influence. Francis has said he would dearly like to travel to China. The odds, however, are stacked against such a visit until the Holy See is able to establish normal diplomatic relations with he country.

The pope’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill took place on Francis’ way to Mexico, the highlight of which was his Mass in Ciudad Juárez — once the most murderous city in the world — and right on the U.S. border. Choosing that place to close out his visit to Mexico, the second most Catholic country in the world, highlighted not only the crime that has plagued Mexico for decades, but also the plight of families who flee that violence for a better life in America. Along with the immigration crisis, Francis criticized corruption and the drug trade, highlighted protection of the environment and praised traditional Mexican culture.

During a Mass for 100,000 indigenous people in Chiapas — Mexico’s least developed state — the pope criticized colonial powers that were “intoxicated by power, money and market trends” and had “stolen your lands or contaminated them.” He affirmed the right of indigenous people to live “where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation are not the currency of the day.” Francis later had lunch with the indigenous community. On the menu: chicken, corn tortillas, fruit, regional sweets and locally grown coffee.

The local diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas has just a few dozen priests. It is served by more than 300 married deacons, many of whom come from the indigenous population and minister to them. Mexico’s indigenous population is about 11 million. Owing to concerns over the large number of permanent deacons, the Holy See stopped the ordination of new ones in San Cristóbal in 2001. Pope Francis lifted the ban last year.

On his return from Mexico, Pope Francis has some important decisions to make on the restructuring of the Roman Curia. Before leaving for Central America, he finished a meeting with his advisory group of cardinals, the C9, who presented final proposals for the creation of two new Vatican departments: the proposed Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and the Congregation for Justice, Peace and Migration.

These new dicasteries will include existing Vatican departments — always a difficult task, given that it will mean new jobs for some people. So far, the pope has shied away from creating new departments in the areas of finance and communications. But restructuring is harder, particularly in an institution as old as the Curia, which is used to doing things in a certain way.

At their meeting this month, the C9 held a session on curial reform that was based on the pope’s speech during October’s Synod on the Family, in which he called for “a sound decentralization” of power in the church. Whatever happens with the Curia, the pope’s vision is clear: he wants the Curia to have less power, and to better serve local churches.

Regarding the synod, next month, possibly March 19, the pope is due to issue his document on the family following the synod meetings of 2014 and 2015. Many are expecting him to address the question of whether some divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion, an issue the synod fathers left open for development.

Will Francis pronounce on the matter? It seems likely that he will keep the question on the table, and possibly refer it to local churches for further study. This pope is not someone who rules by decree, as he has repeatedly stated that leadership in the church is about service, and serving requires listening.

It is understood that his close aide, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, will help draft the synod document. He also helped write “Laudato Si,’” the pope’s encyclical on the environment. But we don’t need to read tea leaves in order to grasp general thrust of what Francis will say. He wants the church to take a more pastorally sensitive approach to the family, particularly to those who struggle to live up to the ideals of the tradition.

Meanwhile, virtually every day the pope makes personnel changes. This month, for Americans at least, the decision to appoint Msgr. Peter Wells as papal ambassador to South Africa was important. Wells has been the assessor — equivalent of deputy chief of staff — at the Holy See’s Secretariat of State since 2009, and he has served in the important curial department since 2002.

Wells’ new role is significant, given that many see Africa as the future of Catholicism, and that South Africa has an important strategic position on the continent. Nevertheless, his presence will be missed in Rome, and it is expected that an American priest will be appointed to fill his role.


  • pope francis
  • cuba
  • latin america
  • native american culture
  • orthodox church
  • africa
  • mexico

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