Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Serene Farewell to Wojtyla

IPS Correspondents

MONTEVIDEO (IPS - Latin America Desk), Apr 2 2005 (IPS) - Mexico became the capital of mourning in Latin America over the death of Pope John Paul II Saturday, while governments in the region – home to almost half the world’s Catholics – expressed their condolences, regardless of their political bent.

The region was marked by decrees of national mourning, flags flown at half-mast and presidential speeches praising Karol Wojtyla, especially his work in favour of peace in the world – even Cuba’s socialist government, which described the Pope as a “good friend”.

Another common element was the resignation with which the region’s Catholics received the news, flocking en masse in silence and calm to churches and cathedrals, which rang their bells in mourning every 15 minutes.

In Mexico, the Latin American country that received the most visits from John Paul, hundreds of mourners, many of them weeping, gathered around the statue in the atrium of the Basilica of Guadalupe.

It was in the Basilica that the Pope expressed his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who he addressed as the “Queen of peace”.

Despite the overall climate of respect, above and beyond religious differences, there were a few discordant notes. The prayers of the faithful gathered in the Metropolitan Cathedral, in the centre of Mexico City, were interrupted by loud music from a musical show that had earlier been organised by the city government.

“It’s a lack of respect for our pain, they won’t let us concentrate on our prayers, we are in mourning and the people out there should at least turn the volume down,” an indignant woman told IPS, with tears in her eyes.

Mourners also flocked to the residence of the papal nuncio, where the Pope stayed on his visits to Mexico.

In the cathedral, mourners commented to IPS that the Pope had left behind a legacy of humanism.

“He was a man who changed the history of humanity, advocated for the poor, asked forgiveness for past errors of the Church and always supported young people,” said Teresa Hernández, who was in the cathedral with her entire family.

Local radio stations reported on crowds gathering in towns and cities all over the country, like Morelia, in the southern state of Michoacán, where hundreds of children lit candles on Friday and Saturday, as a symbol of hope “to light the way for the Pope” on his final journey, and along with their parents formed human chains to pray.

In Guadalajara, in the western state of Jalisco, Cardinal Juan Sandoval asked the faithful to place ribbons with the colours of the Vatican – yellow and white – outside their homes in a sign of mourning, as well as the black crepe ribbons with which the Catholic community traditionally expresses mourning.

Sandoval also called for a procession through the streets, to the Cathedral of Guadalajara.

President Vicente Fox broadcast a condolence message to the nation at 17:00 local time.

In Argentina there were also widespread expressions of pain and mourning over the death of the 84-year-old Pope, while his two visits to the country were widely remembered.

John Paul went to Argentina for the first time in 1982, in the midst of the war with Britain over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, in an attempt to broker the peace.

Shortly after his visit, the de facto military regime that ruled Argentina at the time surrendered.

The pontiff returned in 1987, after the mediation of his delegate, Cardinal Antonio Samoré, headed off an armed conflict with Chile over a border dispute in the Beagle Channel.

The Metropolitan Cathedral, located on the historic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and just a few metres from the government palace, was overflowing with Catholics since Thursday, when the Pope’s health took a sharp turn for the worse.

The rector of the cathedral, Father Jorge Junor, commented in his homily Saturday that John Paul had said just a few days before his death that “I am happy, you should be happy too.” He also urged the faithful not to cry.

“We must respect his will,” the Argentine cardinal added a few minutes before the news of his death came out.

The Basilica of Luján, where the faithful pray to Argentina’s patron saint, the Virgin of Luján, was another centre of mourning.

Many mourners openly expressed their grief in the days before the Pope passed away. One elderly woman, drying her tears in a Buenos Aires church, said “This reminds me of when my father died.”

But this Saturday, there was a greater sense of tranquillity among the people praying in the churches, after several days of vigil and following events in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on television.

The government of Néstor Kirchner, which experienced some tension with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the past few weeks over the government’s decision to sack a military bishop, decreed three days of national mourning and ordered the flag to be flown at half-mast, although he left the decision to cancel activities or public events up to the individual organisers.

Next week, Argentine Vice-President Daniel Scioli and Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa will attend the funeral rites in the Vatican.

The Cuban government also issued a message of condolence. “We always saw, and will continue to see, Pope John Paul II as a friend, someone who cared about the poor, who fought neoliberalism and who struggled for peace,” said Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque in a communiqué issued to the foreign press.

He added that the Cuban government and people had received the news of the Pope’s death with “great sadness”, and announced that a high-level delegation would travel to Rome to attend the funeral.

By contrast to the heavy international coverage given to the Pope’s worsening health and his death over the past few days, Cuba’s government-run press gave it little emphasis.

On Friday night, however, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, made a rare appearance on Cuban state television to report on the deteriorating health of the pontiff and invite the faithful to pray for him.

John Paul visited Cuba Jan. 21-25, 1998, when he held mass in several cities and met with President Fidel Castro, who he had already received in the Vatican in November 1996.

His visit was declared “historic” and contributed to a thaw in the relations between the government and the Catholic Church.

Pérez Roque said his country would always recall with gratitude the Pope’s visit, his friendly words and his statement “against the economic blockade suffered by our people,” which John Paul had described as unjust and ethically unacceptable restrictive economic measures imposed from outside.

The foreign minister said relations between Cuba and the Vatican are “normal, marked by respect and cooperation.”

In his televised message, Cardinal Ortega also recalled the Pope’s visit to Cuba, where he came “as a messenger of truth, hope and love,” and was able to say things that “not everyone shared”.

“As he said farewell, President Castro thanked him for all of his words, even those that he did not agree with,” said the archbishop of Havana, who will travel to Rome as a member of the College of Cardinals.

Milagros Rodríguez, a follower of santería, a religion of African origin that is widely practiced in Cuba, told IPS that she was “greatly moved” by the news of John Paul’s death because “he was a very just and humane man.”

“He tried to create unity among nations and above all what mattered to him were values,” she added.

In Chile, three days of national mourning were declared, while the government named Foreign Minister Ignacio Walker to head the delegation that will attend the funeral in Rome.

“Chile has a double debt of everlasting gratitude towards the Pope, because he was the architect of peace, preventing a fratricidal war from breaking out with Argentina, and he came to show us that the route for returning to democracy was peaceful political action,” said the president of the co-governing Christian Democracy Party, Adolfo Zaldívar.

Socialist President Ricardo Lagos, meanwhile, called the Pope “a tireless fighter for peace, liberty, dignity and human rights” during his 26 years as the head of the Catholic Church.

“John Paul II had a special affection for Chile, which was expressed during difficult moments and times of joy. That affection was manifested in actions and in unforgettable moments.”

Lagos underlined that the pope’s mediation in the border dispute between Chile and Argentina was essential “in the face of the danger of a war between brothers,” and highlighted John Paul’s interest in the construction of democracy, “with his urgent reminder that the poor cannot wait.”

The Catholic Church in Uruguay, where the late pontiff visited twice, will hold official religious ceremonies Sunday, while the faithful gathered in their parish churches to mourn on Saturday, since previously scheduled weddings were being held as planned in the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Socialist President Tabaré Vázquez designated his wife, María Auxiliadora Delgado, an actively devout Catholic, to head the Uruguayan delegation to the funeral in the Vatican.

Referring to a visit he made to Rome in the 1990s, Vázquez said he had taken home a statement by John Paul: no matter what political ideology a government follows, it must strive above all to be humane.

*With additional reporting by Adrián Reyes in Mexico, Marcela Valente in Argentina, Patricia Grogg in Cuba, Darío Montero in Uruguay and Gustavo González in Chile.

Republish | | Print |