Pope John Paul II arrives in Mexico City today to begin a six-day visit to what he calls "one America," contiguous nations that together have the world's largest Catholic population.
The physically frail pontiff, who made the first of his 85 trips abroad in 1979 to Mexico, will spend his fourth visit there in Mexico City and on Tuesday fly to St. Louis for two days of public religious events.
The primary aim of the visit is to meet with the bishops of Latin America and North America and deliver a final message on their synod held a year ago in Rome, where they agreed that Mexico would be the best site for a ceremonial event.
"He is coming to meet the bishops of one America," said Mario Paredas, who will attend the Mexico events as director of the Northeast Hispanic Pastoral Center, which serves 4 million Hispanic Catholics in the United States.
"The church, in this synod, spoke of one America," he said. "The Holy Father in Mexico City will bring a new way of looking at the Catholic Church and her work in this hemisphere."
Based on the conclusions of the Rome synod of December 1997, the pope is likely to urge evangelization of the hemisphere, some forgiveness of the foreign debt in Latin America and opposition to drug trafficking.
The Rome synod also encouraged "immigrants who find yourself unwelcome in the lands where you have moved" - a likely papal topic after Tijuana Bishop Rafael Romo Munoz visited Rome this month, speaking of the 30 million transients in his state annually.
John Paul's visit today contrasts with 1979, when a vigorous Polish pope opened a meeting of the Latin American bishops with a warning against Marxist-inspired liberation theology.
While some accounts look back on that time in Mexico as an anti-clerical era when the 1917 Constitution still banned much public activity by the church, Mexican officials say there are similarities and differences.
"The public response was massive then, and it will be massive now," said Jose Antonio Zabalgoitia, information minister for the Embassy of Mexico. "At that time, we had not reformed our laws to a more modern relationship with churches and the Vatican, but it was much the same pattern."
In 1992, Mexico's Constitution was amended to give the Catholic church and Protestant groups legal standing, and the next year full diplomatic relations opened between Mexico and the Vatican.
On his 1990 visit, the pope beatified Juan Diego, the Indian whose vision of the Virgin of Guadeloupe gave the church - and even secular Mexico - its patron saint. And in 1993 he stopped in Mexico for a day en route to World Youth Day in Denver.
The Mexican capital today will celebrate the pope in new ways, perhaps most visible in the papal billboards erected by Pepsico and a media debate over commercializing the visit.
The Catholic Church in Mexico also has designated 25 companies as official sponsors to publicize the visit and defray the estimated $1.2 million cost to the local church.
Some editorials and consumer groups have decried the papal kitsch. Others critics said it is bad taste at a time of economic austerity and in light of papal statements about the poor being "excluded from the banquet of …