Pope shakes up Mexico’s bishops with challenging speech

Pope Francis addresses Mexico's bishops in the cathedral in Mexico City, Feb. 13 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Pope Francis sought to shake up Mexico’s bishops on his first morning here with a powerful, challenging speech, in which he called on them to live as humble pastors, “not princes,” to be close to the poor and oppressed, and to prophetically denounce the drug trade and other evils of society.

He has been twice to Mexico before, in the 1970s as a Jesuit provincial and in 1998 when John Paul II presented the Exhortation on the Church in America. He knows the situation here, both in the church and state, and it’s clear he has come to call them to conversion. 


He issued that call first to the civic and political leaders of this land, and especially those who call themselves Christian, when he spoke to them at the Palacio Nacional. Immediately afterwards, he issued it with particular force to the 176 bishops of this, the second most Catholic country in the world.  

He had written the entire speech himself, and he delivered as a master of the spiritual exercises to them in the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady – just as he had done to the Roman Curia before Christmas 2014.  

Speaking to the Mexican bishops, he hit hard at what he considers their weaknesses and failings, but he also offered some words of encouragement in areas where they are on the right track. He called them to conversion and at the same time he offered them a vision for the road ahead as shepherds to this nation of 120 million people, 87 percent of whom are Catholic, and more than half are under the age of 18.  

Francis is aware that not a few Mexican bishops are closer to the rich, powerful and influential sectors of society in this country where the economic and social inequalities are striking, rather than to the some 50 million people (among the many indigenous peoples) who are living in poverty or misery, and to a large extent discarded by that other society.   

Before his arrival here, he revealed that his main reason for coming to Mexico City was to pray before the revered image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (la Virgen Morenita), and he focused his talk to the bishops around the message of Guadalupe, which is at the heart of the spirituality of the people of this land. He reminded them that La Virgen Morenita “teaches us that the only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God” and urged them to live as pastors who incarnate that tenderness.

“It is necessary to have an outlook capable of reflecting the tenderness of God,” he told them. In this context, he asked them “to be bishops who have a pure vision, a transparent soul, and a joyful face.” He urged them, “Do not fear transparency. The church does not need darkness to carry out her work.”

He called on them too to “be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place your faith in the “chariots and horses” of today’s Pharaohs, for our strength is in “the pillar of fire” which divides the sea in two, without much fanfare (cf. Ex 14:24-25).” 

“In this world"—Francis said"—"God asks you to have a view capable of grasping the plea which cries out from the heart of your people” and “which needs a response.” 

He reminded them that “observing your faces, the Mexican people have the right to witness the signs of those ‘who have seen the Lord,’ of those who have been with God. This is essential.”

Therefore, he said, “do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests. Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander.”

If our vision does not witness to having seen Jesus, then the words with which we recall him will be rhetorical and empty figures of speech,” he added. This is especially important for being able to share the Gospel with young people, he said.

Then turning to the disturbing situation in the country because of the drug trade and the violence linked to it, Francis told them that he is “particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money which, in the end, ‘moth and rust consume’ and ‘thieves break in and steal’ (Mt 6:19).”

From his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires he knows well the deadly impact of drugs on peoples lives, Francis urged the bishops “not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church.”

He reminded them of “the magnitude of this phenomenon, the complexity of its causes, its immensity and its scope which devours like a metastasis, and the gravity of the violence which divides with its distorted expressions, do not allow us as Pastors of the Church to hide behind anodyne denunciations.”

He clearly feels the bishops are tepid in their response and called on them to have “prophetic courage” and develop “a reliable and qualified pastoral plan” that involves families and elements of civil society.  Only in this way, he said, “will people finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened.”

He encouraged them to be bishops “who imitate the freedom of God who choses the humble in order to reveal the majesty of his countenance,” as happened with San Juan Diego. He urged them to “show tenderness” to the indigenous peoples and their cultures, and declared that “Mexico needs its American Indian roots.” 

He urged the Mexican bishops to have a vision that is “always and solely resting upon Christ” so that they can contribute to the unity of their people and foster the “reconciliation of its differences and the integration of its diversities”

He called on them to have a vision that is “close and attentive, not dormant” and strongly urged them “to not fall into that paralysis of standard responses to new questions.” 

He invited the bishops, who were listening attentively but never applauding, “to give yourselves tirelessly and fearlessly to the task of evangelizing and deepening the faith” by means of a catechesis “that treasures the popular religiosity of the people.” Our times, he told them,  “require pastoral attention to persons and groups who hope to encounter the living Jesus.” 

To achieve this vision, Francis insisted that,it is necessary for us Pastors to overcome the temptation of aloofness and clericalism, of coldness and indifference, of triumphalism and self-centeredness” and he reminded that “Guadalupe teaches us that God is known by his countenance, and that closeness and humble bowing down are more powerful than force.” 

Reiterating a message that he has given throughout his pontificate, he told the bishops that “only a church able to shelter the faces of men and women who knock on her doors will be able to speak to them of God. If we do not know how to decipher their sufferings, if we do not come to understand their needs, then we can offer them nothing.”

Speaking as a pastor, he urged them to be close to their priests too, even when they fall or walk away, and reminded them that “we remain in God’s presence only when we are little ones, orphans and beggars.” 

He invited these bishops of the second most Catholic country in the world to understand and appreciate that “the mission which the church entrusts to you demands a vision embracing the whole. This cannot be realized in an isolated manner, but only in communion” 

Pope Francis did not just use hard words in his talk to the bishops, he also had words of praise for them for having “made significant strides in these years since the Council” in many areas, including by developing “the spirit of collegiality” and by their shared pastoral efforts in vital areas of the church’s mission, such as the family, vocations, and the church’s presence in society. 

He encouraged them “not to lose heart in the face of difficulties and not to spare any effort in promoting, among yourselves and in your dioceses, a missionary zeal, especially towards the most needy areas of the one body of the Mexican church.”

“To rediscover that the church is mission is fundamental for her future, because only the ‘enthusiasm and confident admiration’ of evangelizers has the power to attract”, he said.

He urged them “to take great care in forming and preparing the lay-faithful, overcoming all forms of clericalism and involving them actively in the mission of the Church, above all making the Gospel of Christ present in the world by personal witness.”  

Francis acknowledged that “the mission is vast” and can be carried forward in multiple ways but, well aware that the bishops are divided among themselves, he reminded them that to carry out that mission they must “preserve the communion and unity that exist among you.” The church, he added, “stands in need of bishops who are servants and custodians of that unity built on the word of God.”

“We do not need “princes,” but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses” for whom “Christ is the only light,” he stated.  

“It falls to you—he told them—to sow Christ in this land, to keep alive his humble light which enlightens without causing confusion, to ensure that in his living waters the thirst of your people is quenched; to set the sails so that the Spirit’s breeze may fill them, never allowing the barque of the church in Mexico to run aground.”

As he neared the end of his long talk, Francis expressed his appreciationfor everything” that the bishops and the church in Mexico is doing on the migration front. He recalled the desperate plight of millions of these migrants, and urged the bishops to accompany those men and women, even beyond the borders of Mexico. 

He asked them too “to strengthen the communion with your brothers of the North American episcopate, so that the maternal presence of the Church can keep alive the roots of the faith of these men and women.”

Moreover, he asked them too “to witness together that the church is the custodian of a unifying vision of humanity and that she cannot consent to being reduced to a mere human ‘resource’.” And, he reminded them that “the divine Samaritan in the end will enrich the person who is not indifferent to him as he lies on the side of the road.”

Pope Francis concluded his 45 minutes talk by telling the Mexican bishops that he “is sure that Mexico and its church will make it in time to that rendezvous with themselves, with history and with God” with the help of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

The bishops applauded at the end, but in a rather muted way. It now remains to see what effect it will have on how they conduct their ministry as pastors after he has left this land. 

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