Sporadic participation, but ‘a great religiosity’
President Felipe Calderon came to this border city to boast of improvements in public safety and witness the destruction of a cache of illegal guns, grenades and ammunition, which he blamed for contributing to more than 10,000 deaths in Ciudad Juarez since 2008.
He also received an inadvertent reminder of some of the extreme expressions of faith in Mexico when an army colonel showed him a sample of the assembled arsenal: pistols plated in gold and silver and engraved with images of saints and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Professions of piety are common and diverse in Mexico, where a quasi-religious drug cartel teaches from its own text, the downtrodden venerate pseudo-saints such as Santa Muerte (St. Death), and Our Lady of Guadalupe and her role in Mexican life and history form part of the national identity --- even in a country with an official secular ethos and government.
In a country where 84 percent of 2010 census respondents identified themselves as Catholic, questions arise over the commitment of Mexicans to a faith that has played a defining role throughout their nation's history --- from the Spanish conquest and evangelization to the independence movement promoted by Father Miguel Hidalgo to the 1920s Cristero Rebellion against anti-clerical laws.
Auxiliary Bishop Victor Rodriguez Gomez of Texcoco, secretary-general of the Mexican bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service dioceses across the country have worked to promote catechism classes and ministries with a missionary focus. He estimates between 10 percent and 20 percent of Catholic are committed church-goers and involved in parish life.
"There's a large group of people that participate sporadically in church life," he said, even though they bring "a great religiosity."
This common form of professing the Catholic faith in a sporadic, yet seemingly pious way, perplexes church leaders and religious observers, who point to a disconnect in the way so many Mexicans identify themselves as Catholic, but fail to bring church teaching into their daily lives.
The disconnect is especially visible in the ways corruption, income inequalities and violence have been common in a heavily Catholic country.
"The religious expression ... is not very connected to a commitment to social transformation," said Victor Ramos Cortes, a professor at the University of Guadalajara. "A person can go Mass, but be a thief, or be unfair with the people around them."
Or be a drug dealer.
Cartel kingpins have made donations known as "narcolimosnas," or drug alms, which have built and repaired churches, including a chapel in the state of Hidalgo, bearing a plaque thanking the generosity of Los Zetas founder Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano.
The mixture of the criminals and church seems improbable, but it makes sense in the Mexican context, said Ramos.
"There's very little relationship between symbolic religious practices and daily living," he said.
Over the past five years, conflicts among drug cartels, criminal gangs and the Mexican military have left more than 45,000 people dead, yet many of those involved in the conflicts are baptized Catholics.
The religious expression ... is not very connected to a commitment to social transformation. A person can go Mass, but be a thief, or be unfair with the people around them.
---Victor Ramos Cortes, University of Guadalajara
Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo considers such figures proof that the church has fallen short in its pastoral work. He expressed frustration with the church's inability to draw the faithful into the parishes for more than just special occasions and provide ongoing training that would produce laypeople ready to play productive roles in Mexican public life.
"The administration of sacraments is when (priests) give a little formation to lay members," Bishop Vera said.
The church role in Mexican public life has been polemic for decades as church and state were officially estranged and anti-clerical laws limited priests to nothing more than preaching spiritual matters inside authorized houses of worship.
Bishop Rodriguez said these restraints prevented priests from fulfilling a more communitarian and social vision for the church like that encouraged by the Second Vatican Council.
The less-cordial period of the Cristero Rebellion led to the closing of churches and seminaries, altering the way the Catholic faith was practiced in Mexico.
This led people to follow the faith in their own way and develop a sort of "homemade religion," said Father Robert Coogan, an American priest in Saltillo and a diocesan prison chaplain.
"The way Catholicism has stayed alive in Mexico is through the rosary, not Mass," he said, explaining that most of the people he serves consider themselves Catholic, but only attend church for things like baptisms and weddings. "They don't see Mass as part of their Catholic identity."
Father Coogan sees devotion in the inmates he works with and the neighbors in the subdivision surrounding the prison in Saltillo, an industrial city 190 miles from the border with Laredo, Texas. Much of the devotion is informal, however.
Behind bars, Father Coogan estimates fewer than 25 percent of the inmates attend Mass, but more than half of them come to pray --- daily.
"Do they have a relationships with God? I say they do," he said of the inmates. But he added, "I haven't found a way to make the sacramental life of the church important to them."
Informal expressions of faith date back decades and even centuries as evangelization in Mexico often involved some adapting of Catholicism to existing pre-Hispanic customs.
These informal expressions are often known as "religion popular" (people's religion).
One popular expression is the skeletal-looking Santa Muerte, which Father Coogan says is venerated by 40 percent of the prisoners in Saltillo and is looked to for miracles.
That search for miracles is common in Mexico, along with short-term thinking, Ramos said. That thinking, he said, is shared by criminals and their targets, who seek protection and intervention from the same source --- sometimes Santa Muerte.
"The Catholic religion, mixed with the indigenous perspective ... results in a sort of magic thinking," Ramos said. "At the end of the day, I'm not responsible, rather, if I invoke something magical, some rite, I'll be saved in some way."