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Religion in the Americas: Pope John Paul II. An m Looks At m and An ms.



     A few years ago, a Polish joke was that, when the Pope visited the United States, he was asked if there was anything he did not like about it. "Yes, he replied, two things. I resent Polish jokes, and I can't get the wrapping off m and ms." Now this m (mugwump) will try to unwrap the millenium issues. Please forgive the length of this memo; the subject is immensely important.
     Before leaving Rome the Pope stressed the importance of Latin America, where half of the world's Catholics live. Moreover, he included included North America as well, placing the whole continent under the protection of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her shrine will be second only to Rome in the West, as Santiago de Campostela was in the Middle Ages. The Spaniards were mildly pleased at his praise of the Spanish evangelists, but the Mexicans were ecstatic that once great "New Spain" was to achieve such primacy. On the plane from Rome, Mexican reporters presented him with a large and ornate sombrero, which he donned for a brief while, delighting the Mexicans. Everywhere Mexican flags were in evidence.
     The Virgin of Guadalupe is revered by Indians like Juan Diego, and the Pope has made clear his sympathy for the Indians of Chiapas, whose historic capital is San Cristobal de las Casas, named after the Spanish Dominican who denounced the Spanish oppressors. Many observers, including the well-informed LANS, think the clergy, not the military, are responsible for the bloodshed in Middle America, and the Mexican government has jailed five priests. The Pope may be opening an Indian Pandora's box in many countries.
     A synod covened by the Pope in 1997 prepared a report on the new evangelization of the Americas, copies of which were solemnly distributed by him at the mass at the Shrine of Guadalupe to representatives of the Catholic churches of all the Americas. It provides guidelines which will be studied in the year leading up to the 2MY celebrations.
     Many Americans are worried about the 2MY threat, when the computerized world will break down. We in Silicon Valley (but not I) are acutely concerned. Electronics play a major role in the Californian economy, and are high on the priorities of the delegation which our new governor, Gray Davis, is leading to Mexico. He hopes to sell more computers and to get Mexican-American votes. He gives no thought to the possibility that they may feel a deeper loyalty to Mexico than to the United States, as suggested by the large number of them who went to Mexico for the Pope's visit, a phenomenon which went unnoticed here but not in Mexico. California may face a Texas in reverse.
     The Pope's visit to Mexico may provoke sectarian divisions. He had made clear before leaving Rome that he had embarked on the second evangelization of the Americas under the auspices of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He spoke in Mexico of reconciliation with other churches, but there were unspoken provisoes. The reconciliation would take place in the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the suggestion that the story of the Virgin's appearance to Juan Diego is a pious albeit beneficent legend infuriates Mexicans.
     When the Pope was last in Mexico he planted an ash tree in a Zacatecas parish churchyard. Now it is flourishing, while the intense cold has killed similar trees around it. A miracle! proclaim the peasants. The parish priest is more cautious. Many educated Mexicans doubt all these miracles but do not say so.
     The Pope spoke of the sanctity of life, which includes a prohibition on birth control. This impresses most Americans as a dogma dangerous even for the poor he seeks to protect. The California-based Packard Foundation has just made a very large grant for birth control in countries like Mexico, and the Mexican clergy will fight the campaign.
     The Pope condemned neo-liberalism and indeed capitalism. The fact that he hated Communist atheism does not mean that he loves the American system in which he was not brought up. While his strictures of capitalism are shared by most people in the world, his case is flawed. There was a story about a Pope who decided to sell the Vatican's wealth to help the poor. Pope John Paul II has shown no inclination to do this. On the contrary, his plan will stimulate church-building, just as a large new church has been built mext to the Shrine of Guadalupe. A TV program, with a commentary in Spanish, showed a ceremony at the large Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It was crowded with clergy and the faithful. The officiating priest announced plans to double the size of the church to accommodate more faithful (loud applause), then "And you are going to pay for it" (a faint clap).
     The Pope correctly denounced the corruption in capitalist society, but the Vatican has been hit with at least two financial scandals, the Banco Ambrosiano and Generali Insurance. He was furious that American corporations, including Pepsi-Cola, had used his visit for publicity linking his name with theirs, but the Mexican clergy replied that it was the only way they could pay the expense of his visit.
     Above all, the Pope has not produced an economic blueprint of a viable economic system. It is easy to denounce capitalism, but, apart from cleaning it up, no good alternative has been found. One ecclesiastical commentator mentioned the Swedish system, but this is not the official Vatican viewpoint.
     What will be the impact of the Pope's visit? In Mexico, every political party tried to cash in on his visit. President Ernesto Zedillo welcomed the Pope at the airport and met with him in his residence of Los Pinos, but his role was pathetic. The roars of applause were for the Pope, not for him. His party, the official PRI, cannot live down the scandalous behavior of Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of American-trained last President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose victory was generally thought to be fraudulent. Another major item shared the headlines with the Pope's visit: Raul had been sentenced to fifty years in jail. It would be a real miracle if the Pope's exhortations had any impact on the powerful Mexican mafia. As for the other Latin American countries, each has its national Virgin, and it is unlikely that they will play second fiddle to the Mexican soloist.
     There was much talk of the sacrament of confession, but the reaction of the middle and upper classes in Mexico and elsewhere will not be to repent and distribute their wealth. There was much unease among certain Mexican groups, notably the Jews, who have been leaving Mexico for the United States or Canada. They are neither as numerous nor as conspicuous as the Lebanese, but they must view the revival of Catholicism as a threat.
     The Pope may be on a collision course with the United States, despite the demonstrative reception given him by vote-hungry Clinton and Gore. He may represent a greater threat to American capitalism than Communism ever did. His conservatism may well split American Catholics. Former Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco broke with him and has been openly critical of his policies, while the new conservative Archbishop Levada has supported him.
     The Pope has called for reconciliation with the Eastern Church, and he may get support. The striking miners in Romania have been strongly backed by Orthodox clergy, who use language very similar to his. The Pope's overtures to Muslims have fallen on deaf ears, but there is a Muslim school whose program parallels his. One would be foolish to predict how all this will turn out.

Ronald Hilton - 01/24/99


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