Pope Francis arrives in Mexico on Friday, February 12 for a week-long trip. It is four decades since Pope John Paul II began his papacy with a visit to Mexico, and the current pontiff has earned similar support among the citizens of the country. Francis will also begin his visit by praying at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe but after that, his tour will take him into uncharted papal territory.
1. The pope’s itinerary reflects his key concerns
Pope Francis’ tour of Mexico has been carefully coordinated to give maximum exposure to the issues of poverty, migration and indigenous rights.
A helicopter will take him to the troubled city of Ecatepec in Mexico State on Sunday. He departs for Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas on Monday, where he will meet with indigenous representatives. On Tuesday he travels to Michoacan, a state that has been badly hit by drug violence. His last stop is Ciudad Juarez, where he will visit a prison and give Mass near the border fence.
2. Jalisco will play a part in the celebrations
Mariachis from Jalisco will serenade the pope as part of a huge musical ensemble in Chiapas. The Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan group is set perform as part of a 200-strong musical collective featuring artists and rhythms from around Mexico. Tlaquepaque artist Agustin Parra is behind much of the design and decoration for the official ceremony at the National Palace. The pope, president and first lady will all be seated in chairs designed and produced in Parra’s workshop. A team of 12 artists and sculptors have been working under Parra to complete the furniture and statues for the ceremony. The artist has commented that while the last two popes requested intricate baroque or contemporary designs, the current pope prefers “absolute and total simplicity.”
3. A papal visit is great for tourism
The tour represents big business for hotels, restaurants and transport services and a pilgrimage industry has sprung up in response. State tourism boards have been eagerly promoting the visit across the country. The state of Michoacan has launched an extensive billboard and poster campaign in Jalisco in the hope of attracting Catholics eager to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
4. Pope Francis is targeting areas where Catholicism is struggling
In contrast to Pope Benedict, who headed for the Catholic stronghold of Leon, Pope Francis is hoping to revive church attendance and vocations to the priesthood in locations where they have been dwindling. Nationally, the percentage of Mexicans who identify as Catholic has fallen from 98.2 percent in 1950 to 82.7 percent in 2010, according to data compiled by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi). The pope is visiting the states of Chiapas and Chihuahua during his tour, focusing attention on two regions where Catholic numbers are lower than the national average, having been cut away by converts to evangelical Protestantism. If current trends continue, by 2020 the number of Catholics in Chihuahua will have fallen to 74.8 percent, while in Chiapas, Catholics will become a minority, with only 38.8 percent.
5. U.S. citizens will also be involved in the trip
Worshippers on the U.S. side of the border are planning to gather when the pope gives Mass in Ciudad Juarez. A crowd of about 50,000 is expected at the El Paso border fence, while an estimated 200,000 will gather on the Mexican side. “The Mass is being intentionally held right on the border so that it will be visible from both sides,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
6. The pope will be greeted by a record line of cell phone lights
Catholic well-wishers will line the sidewalks holding up their cell phones to light the way for the pope when he lands in Mexico City. The Popemobile will travel the 12-mile route from the airport to the Vatican’s diplomatic mission. Reports suggest the line will be the “longest ever human light chain on record.”
7. The papal visit won’t be cheap
The visit is expected to cost state and municipal governments at least 165 million pesos (US$8 million). The costs include repaving streets and painting walls, designing and producing stages and furnishings, as well as hiring security and support personnel to assist with the seven-day tour.
8. His visit comes amid claims of church irregularities
The pope’s trip comes days after documents appeared to show Mexican church officials fast-tracked a marriage annulment for the wife of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Aristegui Noticias reports the documents are evidence of an irregular and hastily arranged procedure. The annulment came 19 months before the general election, and allowed then-State of Mexico Governor Peña Nieto to bolster his image ahead of his successful presidential campaign in 2012.
9. The pope will not meet with the parents of missing students
Parents of the 43 students kidnapped in Guerrero in 2014 have been looking to arrange a meeting with the pope for months. Yet Father Lombardi has explicitly ruled out this possibility, explaining that multiple groups of victims and relatives had asked to see the pope.
10. Francis is the third pope to visit Mexico
Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to travel to Mexico, and he remains a hugely popular figure in the country, having returned five times during his papacy. Pope Benedict also paid a visit in 2012.