#PopeInJuarez: an unlikely and historically hilarious hashtag

By David Agren

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In anticipation of Pope Francis’ Feb. 17 visit to this border city, an unlikely hashtag appeared: #PopeInJuarez.

The hashtag refers to Ciudad Juarez and the pope’s arrival in a city once considered “murder capital of the world.” It has seen a 92 percent drop in the homicide rate since the depth of its drug-related violence in 2010.

A painting of former President Benito Juarez of Mexico is seen in this 2004 file photo. (CNS photo/Mario Guzman, EPA)

A painting of former President Benito Juarez of Mexico is seen in this 2004 file photo. (CNS photo/Mario Guzman, EPA)

However, the city’s namesake, former President Benito Juarez, once feuded with the Catholic Church and authored the 1850s reform laws that stripped the church of its properties, power in legal matters and even prohibited priests and nuns from wearing their habits in public.

Pope Francis’ visit to the country and Ciudad Juarez demonstrate the distance church-state relations have moved in Mexico, which only established relations with the Vatican in 1992. Already in the papal trip, politicians in the states the pope has visited have been eager to appear in public with him and published photos of their encounters on social media and state-subsidized media outlets. That the hashtag would appear in its Spanish form, #PapaEnJuarez, would appear to show a lessening of the anti-clerical attitudes, too — though some of it could be attributed to ignorance. The English-language hashtag appeared to emanate from neighboring El Paso, Texas.

Juarez is one of modern Mexico’s most celebrated figures. His image appears on the 20-peso note, while streets across the country are named after him, along with the Mexico City international airport and even the presidential airplane. He is revered in Mexico for leading it through the French intervention of the 1860s, heading the factions of liberals battling conservative forces in the country and becoming the first indigenous president, although his track record on indigenous land issues is considered unfriendly to indigenous peoples, said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.

The phrase, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace,” is attributed to Juarez and commonly quoted.

A less-flattering phrase also attributed to Juarez, “For my friends, grace and justice, for my enemies, the law,” has come to sum up Mexico’s powerful presidency and lack of the rule of law.

Juarez was born into poverty in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca state, was orphaned at a young age, moved to Oaxaca City, was taken in by a lay Franciscan and studied in a seminary. He became a lawyer and later, a five-term president.

He’s best known for the Reform Laws, however, which were interpreted as an attack on the church.

“The state stopped being a religious state,” Semo said. “Previously, you had to be Catholic to a Mexican.”

Other historians say Juarez and the liberals acted without consulting the church.

“There was never dialogue,” said Father Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a priest in the Diocese of Tepic and professionally trained historian. “This is the big difference between Mexican liberalism and the liberalism of other countries. … In the other countries, there was a dialogue with the Vatican. That never happened in Mexico.”

The street leading to the Paso del Norte boring crossing is lined with posters welcoming Pope Francis in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The street leading to the Paso del Norte border crossing is lined with posters welcoming Pope Francis in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Conservatives, backed by the church, proceeded in 1863 to invite Austrian Archduke Maximilian, backed by French forces, to serve as emperor. The times lent itself to such a scenario: The United States was stuck in the Civil War and unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine of no European colonizing in the Americas.

With the end of the Civil War, French forces left Mexico, leaving Maximilian on his own. He was captured by forces led by Juarez and executed in 1867.

Parts of the Reform Laws remain intact, although the church is now allowed to own property, religious dress is permitted and the church enjoys more freedoms than before.

Ordinary people, Semo says, appear OK with the pope visiting Mexico, but still express discomfort with the church playing a large role in politics — suggesting the Juarez legacy still looms.

As for the church itself, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City tried to rehabilitate the relationship with Juarez in 2006, suggesting Mexico needed another figure like him for the presidency.

“Juarez was always Catholic, never ashamed of being Catholic, was a practicing Catholic. I hope another Juarez becomes (president,)” he said.

– – –

Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero

A faith connection on Cuba’s slow but emerging lane of technology

HAVANA — It’s a scene all too familiar in the U.S., but not one you’d expect in Cuba: a group of schoolgirls cupping their cellphones with their hands, protecting them from the glare of the tropical sun. Most are looking at pictures or listening to music downloaded on the phone’s memory card. Few can access the Internet using their phones.

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones in their hands to protect from the sun's glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest  gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith.  (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones with their hands to protect from the sun’s glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith. (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

Internet is not illegal in Cuba, but it’s regulated, it’s not easy to get and it’s too expensive for the average Cuban to afford (sometimes an hour can cost as much as a quarter or half of a monthly paycheck). Estimates of Internet connectivity vary: some say 5 percent of the island’s 11 million inhabitants have Internet access, others say 25 percent.

Yet cellphones, lately smartphones and even tablets, are not an uncommon sight. Some have been brought in by relatives abroad eager to communicate regularly with family on the island. But younger Cubans eager to communicate with the rest of the world are finding ways to put more than the devices’ telephone ability to use. Those eager enough to connect to the world outside of Cuba can find their way toward Internet at hotels that offer free Wi-Fi or other tourist-friendly establishments that sometimes have easy-to-hack passwords.

In Catholic circles, technology, even without the Internet, has long been used on the island as a way to transmit the faith. Though they may not always be able to access online content, some Catholics admit downloading and sharing the Bible, versions of the Liturgy of the Hours — a set of prayers also known as the Divine Office — and other religious content using memory cards that can be inserted into cellphones, desktops or TV sets.

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones,  or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones, or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Some say that “for a price,” in other words, on the black market, they have purchased and downloaded movies such as the “Son of God” movie and the “Catholicism” video series by Father Robert Barron on a thumb drive. They plug the thumb drives into another device at home to enjoy the religious content that may not otherwise be available to them and their families, not because it’s prohibited, but because it can’t be readily found in a store.

Cuban Catholics also have made a debut on Facebook. The Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba has a Facebook page. Recent status updates include Lenten activities and the rebuilding of churches damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Before the cellphones, the memory cards and tablets arrived, many say that, back in the day, they watched movies about the lives of the saints and other popular Catholic media events using Beta and VHS cassettes — in case you remember what those looked like.

Guidos, an editor at Catholic News Service, went on a Lenten pilgrimage to Cuba in early March. This is the first in a series of blogs about the daily life of Catholics in Cuba.

International newspapers report migration situation with blend of truth, hope

Guatemalan migrants deported from U.S. arrive at airport in Guatemala City. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Guatemalan migrants deported from U.S. arrive at airport in Guatemala City. (CNS photo/Reuters)

By Julia Willis

WASHINGTON -– Amid all the U.S. news media reports on the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border with the influx of children and adults, we decided to take a look at how the local press in Central America is reporting on the situation.

As gang violence remains rampant throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -– one of the drivers for migrants coming into the U.S. — local newspapers seem to be doing their best to maintain a sense of hope in the articles they publish.

While daily news outlets such as El Universal in Mexico have a duty to report the truth regarding the dangers of migration and the likelihood of deportation, they also attempt to encourage Latin Americans by focusing on small victories in the fight for U.S. immigration reform and increased relief services for migrant populations.

Although U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed his support for increased deportation of migrants in a recent interview with ABC News, El Universal presented a positive twist on the story in a July 14 article titled ‘Congress ready to give more funds.’

“I would definitely pass emergency funding targeted for what’s necessary,” Goodlatte said, “but most of the money that the president is asking for is to continue the process of further transporting these children and adults further into the United States. And that, I think, is what the American people don’t like to see because they know that that is not deterrence and that will result in even more people coming into the country. The projection for next year is 150,000 unaccompanied minors. It’s already projected to be more than 90,000 for the rest of this year.”

Other news outlets have attempted to describe the difficult process of deportation by highlighting the help that individuals receive once they have been returned to their home country. Media also is reporting that various agencies of local governments in Central America are meeting to assess the ongoing situation and discuss solutions.

El Heraldo, a daily newspaper in Honduras, reported a story about the first 18 mothers and 22 children returning to Honduras from the U.S. by focusing on the support that the Catholic and Protestant churches provide for these individuals in a July 14 article.

“We are working to develop a reception plan that first and foremost makes these families feel welcome,” said Ana Garcia de Hernandez, the first lady of Honduras. “In order to do this, we have asked for the support of the church, both Catholic and Protestant, so that each returning flight has that spiritual accompaniment, because these families are enduring a very difficult emotional situation.”

As young children continue to disappear throughout Central America, Prensa Libre, a daily newspaper in Guatemala, showcases stories about kidnapped children being reunited with their families and Pope Francis’ thoughts about the “humanitarian emergency.”

Although all of the Spanish-language papers I read described the suffering that migrants endure as they attempt to flee violence in their home countries, they also featured articles promoting hope and encouraging their people to look forward to peace and security in the future.

Crowded streets, churches attest that Holy Week and Easter have never been more alive in this El Salvador city

SOYAPANGO, El Salvador — The Easter Bunny doesn’t live here. There are no egg hunts, no large bags of candy for sale or Easter baskets or bonnets in these crowded streets. But there are crowded churches and the advent of Easter has never been more alive.

Good Friday crowd in Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Crowd gathers on Good Friday in Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

In El Salvador, which means “The Savior” in Spanish, and which is named after Christ, Holy Week leading up to the Easter Vigil, the big event here, is bigger than Christmas, New Year’s and Easter combined.

In Soyapango, people take most, if not the entire week off of work, and attend about 30 different public acts.

“It’s not a family holiday in the sense that people don’t spend their time around a table with food,” said Father Estefan Turcios Carpaño, the parish priest at San Antonio Parish in Soyapango, the third largest municipality in the country with about 290,000 predominantly Catholic residents.

Parishioners spend their time at a different table, the table of the Lord, he said.

Lines for those waiting for the sacrament of reconciliation have been long, leaving many to wait an hour or two, or longer, for confession. On Thursday, the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador ran out of hosts for those who attended the chrism Mass in the capital nearby.

It’s hard to move through the streets because they’re swollen with the faithful participating in the religious processions, and even the smaller events, such as the re-enactment of Jesus in the olive grove. There are crosses everywhere, reminders of how special this time is, even inside the small sauna of a nearby holistic center.

Women stand in line for Good Friday services  Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Women stand in line for Good Friday services Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

San Antonio can only accommodate about 2,000 to 3,000 at a time in the main church. While it would be enviable to any pastor, the parish faces a problem of physical space.

The church swells so much during Holy Week that Father Turcios has had to employ the help of other priests to celebrate Mass and Holy Week events in separate events in nearby neighborhoods, to stave off people from the main church.

He has found a way to broadcast parts of the celebration on a Facebook page, so that everyone will be comfortable and able to listen and reflect during this important holiday.

Helen Girón, 27, was born and grew up in the United States, until her family moved from Texas to El Salvador about a decade ago. Back in Texas, the celebrations focused on one day, Easter Sunday, she said. And it always felt a bit more focused on the material, on what Easter accoutrements could be bought and sold in the stores, she said.

“Here, it’s about building community,” she said. “This tradition helps us become more united.”

Another scene of crowded streets on Good Friday. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Another scene of the crowded streets on this Good Friday. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Father Turcios quotes Pope Francis to illustrate the fervor behind his parishioners: “No one is saved by himself.” We are saved, he said, as “a community of believers.”

It might be uncomfortable at times, said Irma Vargas, one of parishioners, about the elbow to elbow space inside and outside, but the music, the liturgy, the excitement of so many people is “like rainwater that gives life to a plant,” she said.

– – –

Guidos is an editor at Catholic News Service. For more photos of Holy Week in El Salvador, follow her on Twitter @Catholic_Editor.


In Argentina, a different kind of Francis bump

By David Agren

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The San Lorenzo soccer club stumbled toward the final of its Argentine season in December. It drew its final match, but the other clubs finished in such a way that San Lorenzo won its 12th first-division soccer title.

Some fans found the outcome improbable and credited a figure far from the field: Pope Francis, whose election has coincided with the climbing fortunes of his favorite soccer franchise, Club Atletico San Lorenzo de Almagro.

Pope Francis holds a jersey of Argentine soccer team San Lorenzo during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 18. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis holds a San Lorenzo jersey during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 18. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

“It was a miracle from Francisco,” said Juan Carlos Pais, a lifelong fan from suburban Buenos Aires.

San Lorenzo has lived misery and miracles since being founded in 1908, at least according to fans, who speak painfully of losing their stadium in the 1970s during the military dictatorship. The club is one of the five giants of Argentine soccer and has won more titles than most.

But the election of Pope Francis has allowed San Lorenzo to stand out among Argentine teams and move somewhat out of the shadow of the better-known clubs River Plate and Boca Juniors. It now attracts international interest, and fans feel as if the pontiff intervenes on their behalf.

“The fan base believes that Francis brings luck,” said sports writer Pablo Calvo, author of the book, “Dios es Cuervo,” on San Lorenzo and its origins. “They became champions with his arrival.”

The club makes no secret of its unofficial affiliation with Pope Francis — to the point it put the pontiff’s picture on special edition jerseys shortly after his March 13, 2013, election. Putting religious images on jerseys is a no-no, Calvo says, but the club currently has a halo hanging over the logo on its red-and-blue striped kit.

Pope Francis, who used to listen to matches via the radio, has made no secret of his affection for San Lorenzo. He even played basketball with the San Lorenzo team in his youth.

In December, the pope welcomed club directors and players to the Vatican, where they presented him a jersey and brought the championship trophy.

San Lorenzo put the pope's name on its jersey. (CNS photo/Reuters)

San Lorenzo put the pope’s name on its jersey. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Religion runs through the history of San Lorenzo, even though its fans are from all faiths. The club traces its origins to a parish priest, Father Lorenzo Massa, who provided kids with a place to play soccer. The team is known as “the Crows,” a nickname for priests in Argentina.

Actor Viggo Mortenson, another San Lorenzo fan, funded construction of a chapel, named for Father Massa, near the team’s stadium, the El Nuevo Gasometro.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis celebrated services at the chapel. He also celebrated Mass for the 100th anniversary of San Lorenzo in 2008, after which he bought a membership in the member-owned and operated team.

“It’s an Argentine version of the Green Bay Packers,” says pollster Sergio Berensztein, director of Poliarquia Consultores in Buenos Aires.

The conclave guessing game: lessons from a numbers geek

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals from around the world in the Sistine Chapel March 12, 2013, as they began the conclave to elect a new pope. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — A year-ago today, as the world’s cardinals solemnly filed into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, news outlets, blogs and betting sites were abuzz with papal prognostications.

I wanted to take an informal stab at it myself using some tips from the U.S. statistician, Nate Silver, who had correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

I thought it’d be a fun experiment to apply some of the approaches he had outlined in his book, “The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t.”

Here’s what I looked at in the few days before the conclave:

  • What were the challenges facing the world and the church in 1978 and 2005?
  • What “winning” qualities did Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — the men who were elected those years — possess?

From there, I drafted a rough list of what church leaders and others were saying in 2013 about the pressing challenges.

Here are just a few examples:

Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Shut off from the outside world, cardinals from around the world cast ballots to elect a new pontiff in a conclave that began March 12, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

  • Religious freedom, oppression in parts of Asia; persecution and violence in the Middle East and Africa; infringements in the western world.
  • Secularism and globalization.
  • Latin America losing Catholics, Asia growing.
  • Church needing to be “attractive,” new evangelization and need to be “outspoken.”
  • Making Jesus the center of liturgy, lives, prayer.
  • Problem of sex abuse.
  • Catechism and solid foundations of faith.
  • Attention to young people.
  • Orthodoxy, importance of Catholic identity for universities, charities.
  • Lapsed Catholics; family; sacraments.
  • Vocations.

Then I scribbled down some of the winning qualities that people were looking for and would be needed to face the challenges:

  • A spiritual leader (strong prayer life).
  • Energy, strength to travel; but how young/old is too young/old?
  • Can clean up Curia/problems that make church look bad.
  • Makes faith attractive.
  • Smart; simple, clear communication.
  • Honest, down-to-earth.
  • See young people as important.
  • Represents the message the church wants to send the world.
  • From Asia, Latin America, Africa.
  • Charismatic; humble; multilingual.
Cardinals enter Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

Cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel in prayer March 12, 2013, as they begin the conclave. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Silver said also to list any biases that might affect the way the data is read. So I listed the common opinion that the pope “not be Italian” and the need for someone “young” or with “strength of mind and body,” as Pope Benedict himself had said.

Then I looked at several cardinals and their lives, and rated them according to how well each man possessed the needed/winning qualities to confront today’s challenges. I calculated what chances they had of winning, of losing, and of having won in the past.

I only had time to look at 14 cardinals out of the 117 electors. But one of those men was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, whom I gave an 80% chance of winning and a 60% chance of losing (mostly because of his age — he was 76, and lack of languages).

bergoglio stats

A print-out of cardinal-electors, showing my Nate Silver-inspired stat results on March 12, 2013, for Cardinal Bergoglio’s chances of being elected pope.

But those pretty good percentages put him behind what I had calculated for Pope Francis’ close friend, 70-year-old Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. I had given him a 90% chance of winning and a 10% chance of losing, noting his focus on the poor, writings on globalization, his strong voice for Latin America, language abilities, courage to “put out into the deep,” his work on sanctity of life; and importance of evoking God in a secular world.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila got the next highest marks with a 90% chance of winning, but a 20% chance of losing (too young) noting the following “winning” qualities: “Asian, rides the bus, humble, Vatican II scholar, has ‘star power,’ intellect,” communicates clearly, with focus on youth.


Window of the Holy Spirit above Bernini’s sculpture, “The Throne of St. Peter,” in St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 19, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The good thing about Silver’s approach is you’re supposed to adjust the percentages as you collect more data and I didn’t have that much time to find out more about Cardinal Bergoglio. Had I known he was another friend of public transport, I would have boosted his Win score up to 85%!

But probably the best lesson Silver offers is to never forget the limitations posed by human nature, our biases and our limited access to all the information out there.

We want to try to predict the future and be sure about what’s going to happen. But, he said we should be more humble about our ability to perceive and predict the world. And then when you add the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit at work, well, then all bets are off!

Argentine politicos and pope: If you can’t beat him, join him

By David Agren

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As archbishop of the Argentine capital, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio clashed with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.

Shortly after being the cardinal was elected pope, however, posters blanketed Buenos Aires proclaiming Pope Francis an “Argentine and Peronist,” with the president’s supporters claiming Pope Francis as one of their own. They said he was part of the Peronist project to which they belong and which has dominated Argentine politics.

A 2013 poster for midterm elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, features a photo of Pope Francis with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Martin Insaurralde, mayor of Buenos Aires' Lomas de Zamora district. (CNS photo/Reuters)

A 2013 poster for midterm elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, features a photo of Pope Francis with Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Martin Insaurralde, mayor of Buenos Aires’ Lomas de Zamora district. (CNS photo/Reuters)

“Pope Francis has always been a fellow Peronist,” says Carlos Luque, one of the thousands of government supporters streaming from the Plaza del Congreso after the president delivered a three-hour address to Congress in early March.

Church observers say Pope Francis was at one time an adherent of Peronism, a political movement founded by former President Juan Peron and his wife, Eva Peron. The movement has had strains stretching from left to right on the political spectrum.

“Bergoglio always came across as allied with Peronism. Why? Because Bergoglio probably saw in Peronism a non-Marxist force and sensitive to people’s needs,” says Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Catholic magazine, Criterio.

“In the 1960s, Bergoglio was against the Peronism of the left that ended up in guerrilla movements. He instead stayed closer to a Peronism that was more to the right.”

Then Nestor Kirchner came to power after the political and economic crisis of 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its debts of nearly $100 billion. Supporters speak of both Kirchners’ spending on social programs, students and the poor.

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets worshippers after celebrating Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS/Reuters)

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets worshippers after celebrating Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS/Reuters)

But in the capital, the cardinal expressed suspicions of their populist politics and promotion of patronage groups among the poor. He criticized corruption during the traditional Te Deum Mass, celebrated on the May 25 national holiday and attended by the president.

The Kirchners took the criticism personally and stopped attending. Poirier figures they disliked the pope’s style as much as substance.

“One of the problems for Cristina Kirchner is that she’s not credible,” Poirier says.

“She has a certain charisma and political popularity, but her discourse often changes, and there’s a distance between the enrichment of many ministers and real life,” he adds.

“There’s a discourse that is not accompanied with a lifestyle. One of things that bothered them most about Bergoglio was his austerity.”

But with election of Pope Francis, priests and observers say both sides have made improving the relationship a priority. It’s improved to the point that Fernandez is expected to attend the Te Deum Mass this year, instead of heading for the provinces.

“Bergoglio has seen many people from Argentina now that he’s pope,” said Poirier. “He’s seen many politicians, union leaders, economic directors, and what generally leaks out is that he says: ‘Tend to Cristina. She has to finish her term. Institutions must be looked after. She’s the president.’”