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A bond strengthened over time

· The Ambassador of Mexico to the Holy See speak about the upcoming Visit of Benedict XVI ·

From Wojtyła to Ratzinger, Mexico has been in the heart of the Pope and the Pope in the heart of Mexico. This is the impression given by the words of Mr Héctor Federico Ling Altamirano, Ambassador to the Holy See of the Latin American country to which Benedict XVI is going from 23 to 26 March. He will also visit Cuba from the 26th to the 28th. In the interview he granted to L’Osservatore Romano the diplomat reviews the salient moments of John Paul II’s five Visits. He describes the sentiments inspired by his encounters with the Mexican people and speaks of the spirit of cooperation evident among the civil and religious authorities and simple citizens in this time of expectation of the Pope’s arrival, at a time when a far-reaching discussion is developing in the country on the role of religion, in the Church and in particular, for the future of Mexican society. The following are extracts from the interview, given in Italian.

Mexico was one of the countries visited by John Paul II during his first international journey in January 1979. Following that,  Pope Wojtyła returned four more times: May 1990, August 1993, January 1999 and August 2002. How did the Mexican people experience this clear testimony of the Polish Pope’s love?

The Mexican people, during John Paul II’s Visit, demonstrated great affection for him on his Visits, which, by their frequency and emotional intensity, have now become a beautiful tradition. John Paul II’s uniqueness, his Polish origin, his survival of the horrors of Nazism and Communism, his patriarchal stature, so open to a people capable of expressing their joy and showing their enthusiasm loudly: this can help us to understand, both from a sociological and a religious point of view, the cause of that enthusiasm. I would give more than just a little importance to his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Nor could I forget the emotion that he incited with his affectionate expressions for the Mexican people: “I am with you to the end of time” and “I feel Mexican”.

Thirty-two million people stood in line, some for even 50 hours, in order to venerate the relics of Bl. John Paul II exposed last year in Mexico City’s Cathedral. It was a sign of how much the Polish Pope has remained in the hearts of Mexicans. In your opinion what caused caused such love?

What happened in Mexico during the pilgrimage of John Paul II’s relics throughout the Republic is worth a number of different assessments, considering both the sites visited, the number of faithful who welcomed him and the manner of genuine devotion shown by the Catholic people. These feelings were documented everywhere: from the wilderness of Huasteca to the great cities of the plateau, from the arid and modern north to the most hidden places of the Maya and the Yucatan and of the south east and in the enormous central population of Mexico City. I think that the simple but effective collaboration, that the civil and political authorities offered to the episcopate contributed to this effort. I am convinced that at the heart of this extraordinary manifestation of love was the gratitude and a true admiration for a Pope who travelled everywhere seeking to leave us a better world. And he did that until it was time to return to the Father’s house.

And now Benedict XVI is coming. What are the feelings with which the nation is preparing for this new meeting with the Pope?

It is difficult to summarize in a few words the feelings with which the Mexican people are getting ready to receive Benedict XVI. There is a growing fervour, somewhat comparable to that caused by John Paul II. The place chosen for the meetings with the people is significant to justify such fervour. Guanajuato is one of Mexico’s central states, both for its geographical location and for the size of its population. But above all it is an area where the people live the Catholic faith intensely. Besides that, it is a land which, despite the five Visits of John Paul II, has never had the joy of hosting the Pope. The demonstrations of mutual affection between Pope Wojtyła and the Christian people of Mexico, I am sure, will add to those with Benedict XVI. He is a wonderful bearer of the Gospel’s message, capable of teaching it even in difficult circumstances which one finds confronting the Latin American peoples. He comes — as he said on 12 December in St Peter’s Basilica — to preserve and nourish their faith.

“No one welcomes the Pope like Mexico” is a popular slogan during this period leading up to the arrival of Benedict XVI. Is this an unequivocable reaffirmation of their faith?

As I just said, I don’t think the logistical plans or publicity campaigns for the events and ceremonies are designed as a response to the so-called secularism. I think that the phrase “No one welcomes the Pope like Mexico” is an expression of popular conviction very diffused among the Mexican Catholic population. In any case, it is an invitation to take part in welcoming the Pope and to be present at the most important moments of the Visit to listen to his message.

The Archbishop of León launched an appeal to the criminal organizations for a truce during the days of the Visit. How problematic is the atmosphere of violence created by the drug cartels?

The appeal launched by the Archbishop of Léon deserves full respect and consideration. Technically however, a truce can only be obtained if there is an end to the hostilities. In Mexico the offences and the various crimes and among them drug-trafficking, are severely penalized. Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre also asked everyone, and especially the criminals, for a change of heart in view of the Pope’s Visit: “What we ask all people of good will is to listen to the voice of reason and listen to the voice of God”. It is true however that for many people the atmosphere of violence has become a daily worry and a latent threat, especially in certain areas.

President Felipe Calderón, referring to the violent atmosphere that currently is gripping the country was very explicit in his invitation to the Pope: “We need you in our country”. What is expected of the Pontiff’s Visit on this front?

Certainly there are expectations and they regard many different areas of national life. For example, religious expectation is concentrated on rediscovering, especially on the part of Catholics, of the true meaning of solidarity with one’s neighbour. There are also those who expect an intensification of Gospel preaching, better education and greater ethical awareness in the performance of public functions. Concerning the statements of President Calderón, I believe that this brief but very significant Visit by Benedict XVI to my country can be expected in particular to nourish the souls and hearts of a people who are naturally and deeply religious, to inspire hope and faith on which it is possible to build together a better country. This is a project which can only be realized together with the spirit and will help contribute to the common good.

There is a climate of great collaboration between the Church and the Federal Authorities in preparation of the Visit. It turns out that there are also many foundations and numerous private firms prepared to meet the costs of its organization. How do you view this convergence of intentions for receiving the Pope?

I can tell you that the Federal Government is cooperating with the Holy See in the broadest sense of the term. I have witnessed some of the preparations in Guanajuato. In particular I know that great things are being done for the important ceremony on Sunday, 25 March, in Bicentenary Park. The most beautiful thing is that everything is being done by the Government in a spirit of great collaboration to coordinate at all levels. With regard to the contribution of others to the organization, I can only tell you that the participation of officials, the media, businessmen, the Church and many others is immense; a participation that is to be expressed on this, as on all occasions.

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