MEXICO CITY –– Shortly after arriving in Mexico City Feb. 12, President Enrique Pena Nieto introduced Pope Francis to most of his Cabinet and senior staff. The next morning, he introduced the pope again to his team at the National Palace in central Mexico City, where presidents and leaders have projected power to the country since colonial times.
Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party was founded by anti-clerical revolutionaries and governed for most of the last century, spoke in platitudes during his address to an audience of politicians and diplomats. He also highlighted the privilege of receiving the pope, who is in Mexico for a six-day visit.
Pope Francis spoke of privileges, too — though in a less-flattering form to a political class accustomed to high pay and perks, along with impunity, in a country where almost half the population is poor and their numbers stay stubbornly steady.
“Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all, sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development,” the pope said.
The pope’s admonishment struck a chord with many in Mexico, where the media in parts of the country are controlled, corruption is commonplace and outspokenness can come with consequences. It also spoke to the advances in church-state relations since St. John Paul II visited the country in 1979 and then-President Jose Lopez Portillo told him, “Welcome to Mexico. I’ll leave you with your flock.”
Mexico and the Vatican only restored relations in 1992. Prior to that, politicians largely kept their distance from prelates, though it was an open secret that some presidents maintained quiet and sometimes close relations with the church – but always out of sight.
Pope Francis has so far spoken plainly in Mexico, touching on topics such as corruption, violence and inequality. He even went to Pena Nieto’s home state to celebrate Mass, speaking of dignity and denouncing improperly obtained wealth, which he compared to bread that “tastes of pain, bitterness and suffering.”
Observers say the pastoral and political agendas are the opposite of those pursued by St. John Paul on his five Mexico visits. St. John Paul was personally well received and is still a beloved figure in the country, even after his death.
“Pope John Paul II came to prolong the existence of the establishment. This pope, Francis, is trying to extinguish this establishment,” said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University. “This is what the church is doing to recover its legitimacy.”
Church ties with the political elites appeared warm well in advance of Pope Francis’ arrival, warm enough that documents produced by investigative reporters and published Feb. 5 suggest the Archdiocese of Mexico City fast-tracked an annulment for first lady Angelica Rivera. It allowed Rivera to marry the leading presidential candidate, Pena Nieto, in a 2010 church ceremony.
Fr. Hugo Valdemar Romero, Mexico City archdiocesan spokesman, said the annulment request was properly reviewed, proceeded without haste and is irreversible, adding that the story would not ruin the papal visit.
“A publication that calls into question a canonical process is irrelevant” to the papal visit, he said.
Even with the expectation of tough talk during the papal visit, politicians were eager to tweet about their encounters with the pope or post pictures with the pontiff on social media sites. Some, such as the governor of Michoacan state, where the pope was to visit Feb. 16, welcomed the pope by tweeting a tourism ad – since deleted.
Former President Felipe Calderon, whose National Action Party has been traditionally church-friendly, attended the Feb. 13 Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with his wife Margarita Zavala, a probable presidential aspirant in 2018.
Photos appeared in the Mexican media of Pena Nieto receiving Communion. Outrage stirred on social media over the governors of Chiapas and Sonora kissing the pope’s ring. One senator even sent her young son over the security barriers so he could hug the pope in the National Palace.
Even Mexicans and media outlets not fond of the Catholic Church or its values were quick to spread the pope’s comments, although there were grumblings about the costs of associated with the trip. Non-Catholics also voiced support for the pope’s message.
“The pope’s moral authority has revealed the vacuum of ethical leadership in Mexico,” tweeted public intellectual and historian Enrique Krauze.
Whether the pope’s message has relevance after he leaves remains an open question in a country where perceptions of corruption, poverty and security have all deteriorated over the past decade, and dissatisfaction with democracy has increased.
“The Mexican political class, responsible for its own degradation, showed up to take pictures with him, kiss the ring and say that they were there and showing it off,” wrote political science professor Denise Dresser in the newspaper Reforma. “The (pope’s) message will be covered by a few media outlets to only be archived later.”
Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero