During papal visit, Francis could surpass John Paul II in hearts of Mexicans

  • A Mexico City newsstand before the pope's visit. (Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

    A Mexico City newsstand before the pope's visit. (Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

  • Jorge Santamaria paints Pope Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe in front of Mexico City's main cathedral. (Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

    Jorge Santamaria paints Pope Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe in front of Mexico City's main cathedral. (Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

In the stark sunlight of mid-afternoon at the cathedral on Mexico City's central Zócalo plaza, 48-year old Jorge Santamaria carefully paints a portrait. On the right, the Virgin of Guadalupe, looks down. The object of her affectionate gaze is on the left hand side of the painting: Pope Francis, smiling, raising his arm.

"It's very important to us that Francis comes to Mexico”, Santamaria told Fox News Latino. “He will lighten our spirits with his message of peace.”

A professional painter, Santamaria says he was commissioned to paint the portrait by the Mexican nuncio as a gift to the pope, who arrives in Mexico City Friday evening for a six-day visit. Having one of his portraits given to the pope fills Santamaria with pride, but, as a Mexican Catholic, he says the pope's visit has meaning beyond his own feelings.

“As a Latin American, I believe Francis understands Mexico well, he understands the problems we're dealing with,” he says. “He loves Mexico more than his predecessor.”

When asked, most inhabitants of Mexico's sprawling capital city compare Francis favorably to Benedict XVI. Many here say the German pontiff – with his distant, intellectual demeanor – was not tremendously popular in Mexico.

Benedict came to Mexico in 2012. It was a brief visit to the city of León, in the country's Catholic heartland. The visit was almost like a stopover before his more widely publicized trip to Cuba. Benedict did not travel to Mexico City or see the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited Catholic shrine in the Americas.

Some her believe the length of the trip was a sign of Benedict's lack of interest in Mexico, which hurt the feelings of many in the country with the second-most Roman Catholics in the world after Brazil. 

Especially considering that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, appeared to go out of his way to show his love for the country. It was the first country he visited, in 1979, and four other other trips to Mexico would follow.

John Paul II was hailed as a "rock star" pope across the globe, but his popularity here rose to extraordinary levels. Photos and portraits of the Polish pope can be found still in churches across the country, and streets and plazas are named after him.

Over the next six days, Francis will extensively travel the country, visiting Mexico City, the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Ecatepec, Morelia, Chiapas and the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Whether he can win over the hearts and minds of Mexicans the way John Paul II did is an open question.

A recent poll in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper suggested he still has some work to do. On the question of which religious figure they identify most with, 53 percent answered John Paul II, while only 14 percent preferred Francis. Benedict didn't even rank.

“It's very interesting to compare him to John Paul II, whom many consider an honorary Mexican,” Andrew Chestnut, chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of several books on religion in Mexico and Latin America, told FNL. “They both have immeasurable charisma, but ideologically, they are polar opposites. Francis is closer to liberation theology, while John Paul II was more conservative.”

According to Chestnut, Francis' agenda shows he takes his trip here very seriously. “This is arguably the most important visit of his papacy. He is the first Spanish-speaking pope travelling to the country with second-largest number of Catholics in the world. The centerpiece of this visit will be his encounter with the Virgin of Guadalupe, who, obviously, beyond the religious realm is the most important icon of Mexicanism. It will be a powerful, poignant moment.”

“This is a hugely celebratory visit for him. He brings a kind of message that will profoundly resonate with Mexicans,” David Perlich, a Canada-based Vatican analyst who has covered the Holy See for 15 years, said. “His personal charisma may actually exceed that of John Paul II. Benedict was more of a teaching pope. He was more interested in doctrine, less so in public persona.”

Beyond his Latin American background, Francis' emphasis on peace, tolerance and attention for the poor appears to strike the right chord with Mexican Catholics.

One of the questions on many people's minds here is whether Francis will extend that message to the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which has been harshly criticized for presiding over an ambiance of human-rights violations, increasing criminal violence and governmental corruption.

“I'm sure there is considerable apprehension among certain Mexican elites about the papal agenda in Mexico, specifically a focus on corruption and poverty,” Chestnut said. “However, the Argentine pontiff is the consummate diplomat who is highly skilled at delivering his message without ruffling too many feathers. While he is going to the Mexican periphery, he's avoiding the hot spot of Guerrero – the current epicenter of narco-violence." 

That southern state became an international symbol of crime and corruption in Mexico after 43 students from a teachers' college in Ayotzinapa disappeared in September 2014. The families of those students have been the focus of demonstrations and unhappiness against the government ever since.

"If [the pope] does meet with their relatives," Chestnut added, "it will take place behind closed doors – most likely in Mexico City or Juárez.”

“Pope Francis is a very savvy Jesuit," Perlich told FNL. "He knows how modern communication works – how to leverage his personal popularity into a platform to get his social justice message out there.”

He added, “Francis is cautious as well as audacious. His message may prick the conscious of the wealthy, but it is never an attack. It's a call for reflection.”

Even if Francis' presence may prove to be uncomfortable to Mexico's elite, few in Mexico City believe his visit will provoke any real change.

“So many things have happened here in recent years, that many people really want change”, José López, a 24-year-old student, told FNL. “But in the end, this is just a state visit. We don't expect the visits of other heads of state to change anything, so we shouldn't with this one either.”

His friend and fellow-student, 20-year-old Marlene Uribe, believes Francis will accomplish something by raising the spirits of ordinary Mexicans. 

“He has a very different style than Benedict, who many people here didn't like,” she said. “Francis just seems more open. I think – I hope – he'll be able to re-ignite some of the enthusiasm that John Paul II sparked.”

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen