At Guadalupe basilica, Mexicans remember papal visits
By Jason Lange
Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Rogelio Reyes stood before the bronze statue of Pope John Paul II outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and remembered the man's words, "Mexico, forever faithful."

The 74-year-old retired bricklayer repeated the words, famous in Mexico since the pope uttered them in 1979 on the first of his five trips to the country with the world's second-largest Catholic population after Brazil.

Throughout the weekend of the pope's death, thousands of people gathered around the statue to say goodbye, and by April 3 a sea of candles had formed.

The crowd outside the basilica, which houses an image of Mexico's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, periodically broke into cheers that punctuated with "El Papa, el Papa, rah rah rah!"

The wind carried away rose petals that somebody used to spell "Goodbye John Paul II" in gigantic letters before the pope's statue.

"He has not died; he still lives on in our hearts," read a T-shirt scribbled with black marker and pinned against the base of the statue.

"We will miss him," said Alma Valenzuela, her cheeks wet with tears as she prayed inside the basilica.

Others crowded around a display of pieces of clothing left by the pope on one of his visits. On his last trip to Mexico in 2002, the pope stood in the basilica alongside feather-clad Aztec dancers at the ceremony where he canonized St. Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint of the Americas.

Mexican President Vicente Fox -- the country's most openly Catholic president in decades -- expressed his condolences in a television address broadcast nationally.

"The world has lost one of its best men. ... However, he will always be in the hearts of all Mexicans," said Fox, who caused an uproar in 2002 when he bowed and kissed the pope's ring.

Mexico has maintained a strict separation of church and state since the early 20th century, and several anti-clerical laws are still on the books. The government re-established relations with the Vatican in 1991, and some historians say the pope's visits helped speed the reconciliation.

Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera said the pope's expressed faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe earned him a special place in the hearts of Mexicans.

"Mexico, with its heart in its hand, told him: You are Mexican," the cardinal said in a statement read during a special Mass celebrated in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral April 3.

Cardinal Rivera, Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez and Monterrey Cardinal Adolfo Suarez Rivera, along with the head of the Vatican's health care office, Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, will participate later this month in the conclave, where a new pope will be chosen.

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