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Pope Benedict visit to Mexico brings ache for John Paul II

MEXICO CITY — The imminent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico is drawing little excitement, underscoring the stark differences between this pontiff and his predecessor, John Paul II, a figure beloved to Mexicans.

Since the moment John Paul II descended from a jetliner in 1979 and kissed Mexican soil, on the first of five visits, Mexicans felt he held their nation close to his heart.

In contrast, Pope Benedict, who arrives Friday in Mexico, is "the antithesis of John Paul II. He is not very charismatic," said Maria de las Heras, head of the Demotecnia public opinion firm.

An opinion survey by her company earlier this month found that 77 percent of Mexican Catholics feel indifferent to the pontiff's visit or are less enthusiastic about it than they were to John Paul's.

Pope Benedict will visit the states of Guanajuato and Leon, areas of fervent Catholicism northwest of Mexico City, before traveling on to Cuba for two days. It is his first trip to Latin America, a region critical to the church's long-term vitality.

The visit comes as Mexico struggles with rampant violence by criminal gangs that has rent the church, separating those who want a greater role in ministering to the victims and denouncing human rights abuses from clerics who support a hard line against the gangs, or those who look the other way as they take donations from drug lords.

But such divisions — as well as legislative debates on relaxing anti-clerical provisions in the constitution — are less at the forefront than the notable lack of enthusiasm for Pope Benedict's arrival, which led a Catholic prelate to admonish Mexicans to stop comparing the German-born pontiff to his Polish predecessor.

"From the perspective of faith, all popes are equal and deserve our respect and our loyalty without regard to the charisma that they may embody," Archbishop Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago of Leon told CNNMexico. "We need to say this to everyone so that they don't expect to see in Pope Benedict a repeat, or a clone, to put it bluntly, of Pope John Paul."

The Mexico where Pope Benedict will set foot for the first time is at once deeply Catholic and officially anti-clerical when it comes to intervention by the church in state affairs.

Only in 1992 did Mexico establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican and relax strictures such as one that barred priests from wearing clerical garb in the streets.

"It is a church that is quite powerful but one that has lost many of its faithful. It is estimated that they've lost 15 to 20 percent of their followers in the last two decades," said Ilan Semo Groman, a historian at the Jesuit-run Ibero-American University in the capital.

Semo said Pope Benedict has not won the hearts of Mexicans.

"He's always the pope. But there are beloved popes and less beloved popes. And in circles of power, he's not seen with great affection," Semo said.

Mexicans are hard-pressed not to draw comparisons to Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1979, 1990, 1993, 1999 and 2002, traveling to 12 of Mexico's 31 states and ministering to millions in open-air masses in the nation's largest cities.

"Every time he arrived, it was nuts. The country came to a standstill, even among non-Catholics," recalled de las Heras, the pollster. "John Paul II had the virtue of convincing Mexican Catholics that the country was very special to him."

The affection was so great that at times police intervened to give the Spanish-speaking pontiff, who died in 2005, some rest from those who sought to serenade him each night.

President Felipe Calderon, whose ruling National Action Party is trailing in July 1 presidential elections, will greet Pope Benedict on his arrival Friday in Leon, perhaps hoping that his party's candidate will get a boost.

Pope Benedict will speak on all aspects of national life, including the violence that has taken more than 50,000 lives since Calderon came to office in late 2006.

"The violence has increased so much that the church has to speak out from a national perspective," said Richard Jones, a deputy regional director for Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based charity. "The pope is going to focus on a message of peace and hope."

Mexico's Catholic hierarchy shifted sharply to the right under John Paul II, a crusader against communism who revived the church while promoting conservative clergy. In Mexico, that meant clerics who sided with the leftist Zapatista rebellion in the mid-1990s, for example, were shunted aside.

But Mexico's roiling domestic violence threatens to split the church again, dividing activists from a somewhat aloof hierarchy that has failed to propose effective antidotes to runaway killings, extortion and drug trafficking.

"This is one of the reasons why the pope is coming," Semo said.

Moreover, some clergy have clearly been lured by donations from drug lords. The founder of Los Zetas, Heriberto Lazcano, a man so brutal he is known as "the executioner," paid for an elegant chapel in his hometown, Pachuca.

Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said drug money has remade other churches, including one southeast of the capital in the state of Mexico.

"Go and see how it glitters today. It's all narco money," he said.

Church officials said Leon was chosen as the center of Benedict's visit over Mexico City because the capital's high elevation — nearly 8,000 feet — was a health risk for the 84-year-old pontiff.

By sidestepping Mexico City, however, the pope will also avoid one of Latin America's most permissive cities, one where gay marriage and abortions are permitted.

In contrast, the state of Guanajuato that will welcome Pope Benedict is among its most religiously orthodox.

"He's going to a state that is so conservative that they passed a law that life begins at conception," said Richard Grabman, author of several books on Mexican history, including one on a religious war in the early 20th century. "That means indigenous women who've had miscarriages have been imprisoned for murder."

The pedophilia scandal that shook the church worldwide also took a toll in Mexico, the homeland of Marcial Maciel, the disgraced pedophile founder of the Legions of Christ, a wealthy and powerful global congregation.

Pope John Paul II was an enthusiastic supporter of Maciel, impressed at his skill in amassing wealth on behalf of the Legion of Christ and its lay branch, Regnum Christi. The pope gave the Mexican priest a very public blessing in 2004.

Only two years later, however, with John Paul dead, Benedict ordered Maciel, who is believed to have fathered up to six children, into a "life of prayer and penitence," without spelling out his transgressions.

In 2010, two years after Maciel's death, the Vatican appointed an Italian cardinal to oversee the Legion of Christ.

A former Legionnaire who claims to have been a victim of Maciel, Jose Barba, is a co-author of a book to be released later this week in Mexico that alleges the Vatican knew for years of Maciel's sexual abuse but did nothing about it.


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