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. ...

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