If the Roman Catholic Church keeps John Paul II traveling, it might either revitalize the church, or kill its Pope. At least in Mexico, where John Paul opened the third Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM), the church shows signs of being revitalized.

From the moment he kissed the concrete at Mexico City’s airport last January 26, until his final “muchas gracias” on January 31, the Pope had the attention of Mexicans well in hand. Federal police reported that 20 million saw the Pope personally during his six-day visit (the most conservative estimates say 10 million). They crowded into stadiums and plazas and filled open fields and road sides to wave at John Paul, whose itinerary was so intense that observers marveled at his ability to keep going so enthusiastically.

Serious challenges awaited the Pope in Mexico, but he responded with directness. In his first address, the Pope called Mexicans to remain faithful to the Roman Catholic Church: Mexico is fast becoming a secular nation, some believe, through its radical constitutional separation of church and state; it is the only Latin American country without official Vatican relations. But when the Pope cried, “Mexico always faithful” at his first speaking engagement, the crowds picked up his cry and chanted it at every gathering that the Pope attended.

Social and political pressures in Latin America are fragmenting what once was considered an indivisible church. Progressives have aligned themselves in various positions around the “theology of liberation,” a controversial social action dogma that calls for an uplifting of the poor, often through violent or Marxist methods. Conservatives are using all their influence to retain something of the ecclesiastical status quo. John Paul tried to reconcile the factions, saying, “There is not, as some pretend, a ‘new church’ different from the ‘old church.’ There is the single church with new aspects, but always the same in essence.”

Papal authority and direction surfaced as a topic in his speeches: “The churches’ magistrates, who are an extension of Christ’s authority, are the only guarantee against losing the just way.”

The Polish Pope expressed his devotion to the Virgin Mary during his Mexican excursion. He opened the CELAM conference at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a church outside Mexico City that was built on the site where Mary, according to the native story, appeared 1531 to an Aztec convert named Juan Diego. (Mary is designated as the Patroness of all the Americas by the Vatican.)

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The Pope said that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the seat of wisdom, and that she guides the future, the past, and the present. He offered to her the entire Latin American Catholic Church as her property, while professing that she provides the spiritual unity that binds the church together. The pontiff hoped the Virgin would let him reach into the hearts of Mexicans and all Latin Americans. (Some evangelicals were concerned by the Pope’s adoration of Mary, saying that when devotion to the Virgin increases, so does persecution of evangelicals.)

Evangelism, the theme of the CELAM conference, is a sticky matter in Catholic Latin America. To many bishops, evangelization means the conversion of the collective conscience so that cultural and national values are changed—not just a matter of spreading the gospel so that men are transformed from within. The Pope agrees with this in part, but he says the church should avoid getting involved in any political outworkings of evangelization.

The church may make recommendations and even strongly criticize governments, the Pope stated, but it must not resort to violence. He emphasized the spiritual ministry of the church.

During his appearances in five Mexican cities, John Paul repeated his devotion to Mary, while his multitudinous hearers echoed back their faith in her, in the Pope, and in the church. He also criticized divorce, and he said that population growth is a sign of a healthy nation (an apparent attempt to discredit contraception on a sociological basis). While supporting the right to private ownership of property, the Pope pointed out that government expropriation may be the best solution in some circumstances.

To the Mexicans, the Pope appeared as a man of exceeding charisma. Lines of police could barely hold back the surging crowds, out to see their Pope who traveled 260 miles in open vehicles under Mexico’s tropical sun to make thirty speeches overall. The people perceived a kind man, a man attentive to their hurts and longings, a man who contrasted sharply with the cold professionalism often associated with their priests and bishops. Indeed, a new approach to pastoral ministry may be the greatest legacy of John Paul’s trip, say some observers.

However, many evangelicals were upset by certain remarks that were made in reference to the Pope. At a mass officiated by the Pope at the Palafoxian seminary, the official guide stated that John Paul II “fills the place of Christ, is the greatest human mediator between God and man, and is assisted by the Holy Spirit and cannot err.” During his appearance in Oaxaca, a priest who later received a papal blessing led the crowd in shouting, “For those who have sight, you, John Paul II, are for us, Christ.”

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Many observers wondered why the Pope, who referred so frequently to Mary in his public discourses, focused more on Jesus Christ and Scripture when addressing church officials.

John R. Quinn, San Francisco archbishop and president of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, defended this seeming duplicity in the Pope’s pronouncements: “The common people are not able to deal with complex issues, so the Pope speaks to them of Mary. However, he can speak of Christ and the Scriptures to the bishops. After all, the Lord used parables with the common people, and spoke differently to his disciples.”

Some evangelicals among the “common people” are worried about the outcome of the Pope’s visit and the CELAM conference, because many of them have paid dearly for their publicly expressed Christian faith. In isolated areas of Mexico, severe persecution continues. Evangelical Covenant missionary Rick Lane reported one such incident as occurring in October 1978: a pastor visited the village of Gueloxi to inspect the construction of an evangelical chapel, was attacked by a mob, forced to run for his life, then hid in a hole for two days.

Dave Cummings, of the Trans-World Baptist Mission, told how an independent Mexican evangelist was hacked to death in the plaza of Ejutal (a city in the state of Oaxaca, located southeast of Mexico City) two years ago. In July 1978, the Mother Superior in Ejutla warned Cummings and other evangelicals never to come back. They did, but are having great difficulty in establishing a church there.

The saddest news of all for evangelicals may come from Santa Rosa Matagallinas, a city also located in the state of Oaxaca. Santa Rosa residents Isidro Patricio and Nahúm Venegas, who were converted through missionary efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that since 1974, four believers have been murdered, several wounded, and others harassed—all by local people acting under the instigation of parish priest Carlos Salvador.

Ambushes, armed attacks on the homes of evangelicals, and church-burnings are normal fare, they report. Isidro pulled off his shirt to reveal the scars of a shotgun attack he suffered on September 6 last year.

However, some Santa Rosa evangelicals report being protected from attack under miraculous circumstances—saying it is as if an invisible curtain protects them from attackers. Pastor Rogelio Vásquez says he walked through several ambushes without being seen. Salvador, the local priest, since has been moved from the parish, but the aggression reportedly continues in Santa Rosa. Government agencies in the district capital of Sola de Vega have done little to change the situation.

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Presbyterian pastor Nicolás Fuentes, who heads the Mexico City-based National Committee for Defense of Evangelicals, said, “Our evangelical chapels are destroyed, we are forbidden to preach, and our pastors are persecuted. In this committee, we receive a minimum of twenty cases per year of flagrant violations against evangelicals by Catholic mobs.” (He said that of Mexico’s 65 million people, 5 million are evangelicals.)

Evangelical leaders across Latin America recognize that aggression against evangelicals is not promoted by the Roman Catholic leadership, but they wonder why the violence is not condemned publicly by local bishops and cardinals. To them, signs of renewed vitality in the Mexican Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Pope’s visit, appear to be a mixed blessing.

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