Before the popes, both the Venerable Paul VI and the Blessed John Paul II, began to travel —an initiative that became routine with Pope Wojtyła — it was possible to discuss or debate the pope’s popularity, or the interest it awakened among the Latin American people. Distant, situated on another continent, object of a very insufficient catechesis, that produced myths and religious prejudice, although in Ibero-America there was never hostility or lack of confidence among the people regarding the pope, one might ask, on the other hand, whether Peter’s successor was not simply an object of indifference.
The recent visit of Pope Francis to Rio de Janeiro to celebrate World Youth Day, where he was acclaimed by more than three million participants, gives us reason to reflect on the figure of the Pope in Latin American Catholicism.
The visits of Pope Benedict XVI to Brazil, Cuba and Mexico offer us similar experiences. We have seen that each one of the traveling Popes have very different personalities, yet the people have come out to welcome them with enthusiasm and admiration.
Paul VI’s trip to Colombia (1968), although quite brief, was the first indication of a response to that question. The people put on their best clothes, filled the streets, and the country stopped everything for four days.
During the first trip of John Paul II was to Mexico (a country in which, incidentally, the Church of Rome had no legal standing). But the country came to a standstill, and the state-run TV had to cover every aspect of the visit of the Holy Father. Possibly half of the people of Mexico saw and heard the pope directly. That clearly implied tiring walks on foot and, at times, all-night vigils. The papal trip from Mexico City to Puebla took three times as long as normal, because the highway, from the day before, seemed to snake between two walls of human beings. Even in Monterrey, in the Northern desert, which is not a megalopolis, the Pope gathered two million people (by government figures).
The Mexican case (considering the proportion of the country’s inhabitants) has been repeated with almost the same exact characteristics, in each Latin American country the pope has visited. No other foreign visitor in history, no local politician since the day of independence, no sporting event, political concentration or national holiday of any kind has achieved such power of convocation. Sociologists ask themselves why, just as do public relations experts and, above all, the political leaders in government. Even some theologians are perplexed. There have been cases (in Mexico, for instance) where political scientists and sociologists have called for a meeting with priests, in an effort to understand the phenomenon.
To attribute the pope’s popularity among the Latin American people (who are as believing as they are insufficiently evangelized) to the Polish Pope’s charisma is an affirmation that no one seriously believes. With Paul VI the same thing occurred. There is little foundation for the argument that the people adhere to one pope over another, or that one, pleases them more than another. Experience shows us that the Latin American people —everyday Christians— have neither points of reference nor ecclesiastical formation, nor any interest in evaluating their popes. That subject is left to the elite in Latin America, who also gather in the street to receive the current pope. It is a question of the pope’s popularity, simply because he is the pope.
How are we to respond to these perplexed sociologists and political scientists?
The answer of course is complex, involving several psychological and social factors, but the key factor is religious. The main cause of the experts’ perplexity is the forgotten fact in the power of the religious to convoke. For one thing, the Latin American people are more or less Christian, and all Christians are interested in meeting the pope, seeing such a meeting as something extraordinary, once in a lifetime, that they dare not miss. Add to this the matrix of Latin American popular Catholicism. This is an expressive Catholicism, happy to participate in community and multitudinous gatherings. It is a Catholicism of the tangible and the symbolic. And the pope (apart from all ecclesiological and doctrinal content, often unknown to the people) is a living religious symbol of the first magnitude. A theologian would call it a symbol of the church’s unity, and of apostolic succession; the people see it in other terms. In their religious intuition, the pope is to them the “man of God”, God’s representative, the concentration of that which is religious and sacred. “To go see the pope” is sacramental; it is also coherent with the itinerant tendency of their religious practice.
To this religious and fundamental factor other factors must be added, which are not always separate from the former marriage, given the marriage in Ibero-American religiosity between faith and culture.
We certainly should not despise the element of novelty and contagion in the collective enthusiasm that is always produced by the visits of Peter’s successor. But there are other, more profound, factors as well at work in the Latin American people and in the Third World in general. The pope is a religious leader who speaks to the people not only of God, but also concerning their life and their human, social and even political problems. In the contemporary scene (especially in the Third World) where the public and political discourse has lost credibility, where demagoguery and popular manipulation are routine, and where corruption is notorious among the powerful, the presence and the word of the pope becomes (in addition to the its relevance for faith) a breath of fresh air that brings truth, authenticity and hope. It tends to verify the gospel-saying “The sheep know their shepherd, and recognize his voice”… distinguishing it from the false prophets and others who seek to take advantage of the flock.
In a certain way, from the social and political perspective, the multitudes that gather about the pope (many of whom are poor, marginalized and oppressed) are indirectly protesting against their political and financial leaders, and are giving expression to a desire of liberty and dignity to which they aspire.
Do the people understand what the pope says? Surely not everything. But people are intuitive and understand with their heart. Probably, their approach to the Holy Father is not so much a search for teaching as for religious inspiration and human freedom and, above all, a strong experience of God, the kind they cherish throughout their life, and which justifies in itself the significant sacrifices involved in a papal visit.