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In Mexico

Many Complain Church Has Lost Touch With Poor

By Kevin Sullivan and Gabriela Martinez
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A39

TEPOZTLAN, Mexico, April 2

When he heard Pope John Paul II had died, Juan Siles came to the grand old church at the center of this little town and reached for a long rope hanging from one of the twin bell towers.

Inside, a young girl in white lace stood at the altar receiving her First Communion. Outside, Siles pulled the rope again and again, ringing the big tower bells with the news that one of the church's great recent eras had passed.

A woman mourns the pontiff at Mexico City Cathedral. (Andrew Winning -- Reuters)

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"He was our father, our guide and our lighthouse -- he made us feel strong, he made us feel protected," Siles said, straining at the rope with misty eyes. "He identified with Mexico. It is indescribable what he gave us."

Still, elsewhere in the church courtyard, Catholics were looking ahead to the next pope, and hoping he would address what they described as nagging problems within the church.

"There is a great distance between priests and the people, especially the lower-class people," said Martin Mendoza, 40, a construction worker. "We want the priests to be the same as the people, not like little gods sitting on their chairs and telling us what to do."

While praising John Paul as a "great man who united us," Mendoza voiced a complaint heard frequently in Mexico and much of Latin America that priests and bishops have lost touch with the needs of the poor, who make up so much of the region's population.

"Lots of priests don't want to listen to us anymore" Mendoza said. "Their Masses are so short, and it seems like it's more about the money you donate. Maybe they should pick a pope from Mexico: He would understand."

"The next pope has to make the priests more aware of the role they play with us, the people," said Leticia Brito, 37, Mendoza's wife.

Miguel Angel Martinez, 38, walked into the courtyard carrying his year-old daughter in an infant backpack. Martinez, an economist, said he hoped the next pope would be "less conservative than John Paul II."

"He needs to pay more attention to the rights of women, and he should let priests marry," Martinez said, adding that there would be "less hypocrisy in the church" if the next pope addressed those issues.

"The next pope needs to be a person who is humble, who grew up in the lower classes and understands their problems," said Isela Dorantes, 33, a teacher and Martinez's wife.

The mood outside the church was largely one of sadness and tribute to a man who was deeply respected in Mexico.

John Paul in 1979 made the first of five visits to Mexico, more than to any other country except his native Poland. It created a particularly intense personal bond with this nation. Thousands of Mexicans have stories of being near the pope.

Hundreds of people began arriving at the basilica here within an hour of the announcement of the pope's death. Workers hung huge black ribbons, tied in bows, across the buildings that face the vast open square of the basilica, which celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

The mourners gathered first at a large bronze statue of John Paul in the square, laying thousands of bouquets of flowers and singing "Amigo," a song written as a tribute to the pope.

"We have been praying here for two days that God would end his suffering," said Ismael Hernandez, 27, a pharmacy worker. "He loved Mexico. He was so smart, brilliant, educated and cultured, but when he talked to Mexicans, he was always just fun and sweet. We feel his loss so strongly."

In the churchyard, people carrying flowers for the pope stood silently in the huge arched doorway, watching the First Communion Mass. Young girls wore party dresses and played between the feet of parents who stared quietly into the cool darkness of the cavernous church with its high, white-washed ceilings.

Ana Maria Delgado, 62, walked over to a dangling rope near the door and started ringing a church bell, tears streaming down her cheeks in the afternoon heat. "He was so much a part of us. He was our father," she said, sobbing so hard her shoulders shook. "We know he is well, he is with God, but as human beings we feel a huge hole in our hearts."

Martinez reported from Mexico City.

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