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Pope reaches out to Mexico

With the naming of the first indigenous saint, the pontiff hopes to stem the flow of followers.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 31, 2002


MEXICO CITY -- Pope John Paul II arrived here Tuesday night for a three-day visit expected to draw as many as 8-million people into the streets of the capital.

Despite his poor health and the risks posed by Mexico City's polluted air, the pope seems determined to make his fifth visit to this deeply religious nation one of his most memorable.

Many Mexicans see John Paul's return as a farewell. But for the Vatican it has a strategic importance in the rivalry with Protestant churches that are winning converts in this Catholic stronghold.

That may explain why the pope has chosen this moment to canonize the first indigenous saint, Juan Diego, who is credited with seeing and speaking with a vision of the Virgin Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe as she is known, in 1531.

The pope will also beatify two indigenous town leaders from the state of Oaxaca who were martyred for their faith. On a stopover in Guatemala on Tuesday, John Paul canonized a missionary noted for his work among that country's indigenous people.

The pontiff's mission is aided by recent political change in Mexico. Since his last visit in 1999, the anticlerical Institutional Revolutionary Party, which kept church and state strictly apart during its 71-year rule, has been replaced by the pro-Catholic National Action Party headed by President Vicente Fox, a conservative Catholic.

Mexico's antireligious laws, which barred outdoor religious ceremonies and forbade priests from wearing clerical garb in the street, are gone.

With an estimated 87-million Catholics in a population of 100-million, Mexico has more Catholics than any nation but Brazil. But inroads by Protestant evangelical groups among the country's 11-million indigenous inhabitants, mostly in southern Mexico, have been a cause of concern among church leaders. Mexico also hosts the world's second largest communities of Masons and Jehovah's Witnesses, with a combined 2.5-million members.

And among Mexican Catholics themselves, only 40 percent are observant. Across the region, church statistics indicate as many as 2,000 Catholics are abandoning the church every day.

But some critics have questioned the Vatican's strategy and the way local bishops have handled the trip.

Religious and indigenous scholars also reject the existence of Juan Diego, saying the church's official version is not supported by any documentary evidence.

"When the pope canonizes Juan Diego, he will have elevated to sainthood the hero of a religious work of fiction," argues David Brading, an expert on Mexican history at Cambridge University who has written a book disputing the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Even devotees of Juan Diego dispute his origins, with some saying he was a poor Chichimeca Indian peasant and others that he was the grandson of an Aztec noble.

Fueling doubts, the man given the task in 1947 of restoring Juan Diego's cloak, on which the now famous image of the Virgin appeared, revealed for the first time this week that the image was not the result of a miracle. Instead, he said the image had clearly been painted by human hand.

This only confirmed a 1999 study by archaeological microbiologist Leoncio Garza-Valdes from the University of Texas at San Antonio. After examining the cloak, supposedly made of sacklike cloth, he discovered it was a much finer material with three superimposed paintings. The principal work is believed to have been done by an indigenous artist, Marcos Aquino, in 1556 -- 25 years after Juan Diego's alleged vision -- and is a copy of the Virgin of Extremadura, brought from Spain by conquistadors.

"For the Vatican Juan Diego is not an end in himself," said Jorge Erdely, a Mexican theologian and editor of a religious magazine. "The problem is this: If Juan Diego didn't exist then the miracle of Tepeyac didn't happen," he said, referring to the hill where Our Lady of Guadalupe is said to have appeared before Juan Diego.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is crucial to the Vatican's efforts to hold back the Protestant tide, as well as extend the church's message to an estimated 20-million Mexicans living in the United States.

The pope, a devotee of Guadalupe, declared her to be the church's official "Patron of Americas" in a ceremony to announce a new era of evangelization during his last visit to Mexico in 1999.

The Basilica of Tepeyac, where her image on Juan Diego's cloak hangs over the altar, is the second most visited Catholic shrine after St. Peter's in Rome.

"The Virgin of Guadalupe is part of a strategy to revive symbols of popular fervor in the Americas," Erdely said. "It's basically a marketing tool."

That strategy may explain an otherwise baffling Vatican decision to alter the official indigenous image of Juan Diego to give him a more European look, with lighter skin and a full beard. Critics say the new image bears a stronger likeness to the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, than local Indians who generally have only wispy facial hair.

Critics say the "Euro-Diego" was designed to please wealthy Mexican Catholics who found the idea of praying to the image of a humble Indian peasant distasteful.

According to Erdely and other experts, the Vatican has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote Juan Diego's canonization in order to preserve the centerpiece of its strategy for the Americas.

Though Juan Diego is not the first imaginary person to be made a saint, previous cases date to earlier times when the process of canonization was less strict.

Current Vatican procedures require proof of existence beyond a reasonable doubt. "In this case it's worse," Erdely said. "History isn't silent. There's a lot of information contrary to his existence."

That is why for years, and as recently as 1995, the Vatican office of Congregation of Saints, which handles the process of canonization, rejected the case of Juan Diego.

The weakness of Juan Diego's claim is also recognized by the Vatican's failure so far to classify the miracle of Tepeyac according to its five-tier scale of credibility.

Even so, Mexicans appear prepared to put faith before reason. Opinion polls show support for Juan Diego remains strong. In one, 66 percent of Catholics said they believed in his existence. In another, however, 46 percent said they would not pray to the new saint.

"I don't care what anyone says," said Petra Toto, 54, as she accompanied her son-in-law crawling on his hands and knees up the steps to the shrine of Guadalupe on Sunday in fulfilment of a promise to the Virgin. The man, Ernesto Uvaldo, 25, made the pledge when his wife nearly died in childbirth in June.

Despite welcoming the pope's recognition of the indigenous faithful, some Indian leaders are not happy with the handling of the visit.

Indigenous groups in Oaxaca say the two supposed Zapotec martyrs of 1700 were in fact traitors not worthy of beatification. The two men were decapitated by fellow villagers after they informed Spanish colonial rulers that members of the community were practicing pagan rituals.

Spanish officials later took out their revenge on the village, decapitating 15 men and staking their bodies by the roadside as a warning.

Others have also complained that politicians are hogging the guest list for today's ceremony while indigenous leaders have been left out in the cold.

An indigenous leader for the supposed Chichimeca descendants of Juan Diego complained this week in Mexican newspapers that no one from his community had been invited.

"They have taken advantage of the canonization so they can get in front of the TV cameras and appear as good Catholics," said Aurelio Quevedo, a Chichimeca leader.

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