I was recently with a friend, and I gave him grief for prefacing what he said with disclaimers. “Just say it,” I encouraged him. “You’re not going to offend me.” So my words come back to haunt me a bit as I begin this rather challenging series of blog entries. On the one hand, I do not want to be accused of theological arrogance, a prejudice affecting those of faith who are so convinced that what they believe about pretty much everything is exactly right, and everyone else is wrong. On the other hand, I do not want to compromise Biblical truth. “God help me,” would be an adequate prayer. So I pray it.
I also do not want to be unnecessarily divisive. I remember well the three years I supported a group of students at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) Ixtapalapa, in Mexico City. Ten to thirty of us would gather together once a week, with a guitar or two and a desire for fellowship, and sit in a circle on the grass in the middle of the university. On Sunday, our church fellowships ran the theological gamut, from main-line to radically Pentecostal to Baptist, from house to mega-church. Yet there, in the middle of a secular campus, nobody talked about those differences. Why? Our energies were focused on more important pursuits, like being a witness for Jesus in a dark place. I would like to think that if an interested Catholic student would have liked to join our group, he would have been welcomed. I also am convinced that we would have very quickly perceived his faith commitment to Christ, or lack thereof. It just comes with the territory. Can Catholics have a genuine, saving relationship with Jesus? Yes. They have the Bible, and can read it. They believe that Jesus is divine. That is a very good start. But…but…here in Mexico there are huge barriers to saving faith, barriers I hope to address.
“Not every Mexican is a Catholic, but every Mexican is a Guadalupan”I have now lived in Mexico for nearly half my life, over twenty years, and have visited the Basilica of Guadalupe, the most important shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Queen of Heaven, the Benefactor to the Americas, the Mother of God more times than I can remember. I’ve lived among both committed and nominal Catholics for a long time, and have witnessed their compassion and fervor, as well as their disillusionment and cynicism. Alas, any majority religion suffers under the weight of its own inertia. Just ask evangelical Christians in the U.S.
During this time I have become increasingly aware of the differences between Mexico’s unique form of Roman Catholicism. The saying “not every Mexican is a Catholic, but every Mexican is a Guadalupan” is a well-known one, although I am unable to find to whom if anyone the quote is attributed. It belies a dichotomy between the formal dogmas of the Catholic Church and the popular, syncretistic form that the large majority of the people have embraced in Mexico. In late 2011, the Mexico City government and the federal government donated a huge and very expensive expanse of land to the Catholic Church. The property is located adjacent to the Basilica of Guadalupe, now the site of the Marian Plaza. The former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, declared himself as both Catholic and Guadalupan during the inaugural address at the ceremony celebrating the donation of the property. The massive convention center and corresponding market space was later constructed by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man. Marcelo Ebrad, mayor of Mexico City, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Mexico City Nolberto Rivera were also present.
Much could be said about what sort of economic and political interests could unite Mexico’s president with the country’s richest man and highest religious leader. Marcelo Ebrad, mayor of Mexico City and champion of the political left, was also present at the inauguration, a man who has supported legalized abortions and has openly supported homosexual rights. López Obrador, who is by far the most powerful man on the left side of the political spectrum and former Mexico City mayor, initially began the legal paperwork during his tenure in office that eventually culminated in the mega-donation ten years later. Representatives of the political and religious extremes of right and left, rich and poor, presented united, monolithic support for Mexican Roman Catholicism. Wow. Why would the former president identify himself as Catholic and Guadalupan? Why the double nomenclature? The president was declaring himself Catholic, but more importantly, he was identifying himself with the Virgin of Guadalupe. And alas, those two religious systems are quite different.
(This series of blog posts will continue for quite a while, with frequent interruptions I'm sure)