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The Pope and the Third World

'He Consoles Those Who Have Nothing'

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A36


Wearing a black lace veil and clutching a picture of Pope John Paul II, an elderly woman here explained why she saw the pope as a personal hero, not some faraway leader from Rome.

"He consoles those who have nothing," Agripina Leonardo de Zepeda said as she stepped out of the city's main cathedral during the pope's visit in the summer of 2002. All around her, Mexicans who had barely enough to eat had spent precious pesos on bus fares to the capital, just so they could catch a glimpse of an elderly man in his popemobile.

March 1998: Being driven through crowds of worshipers before Mass in Onitsha, Nigeria. (Jerome Delay -- AP)

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In Mexico, as in much of the developing world, millions of people felt a personal bond with John Paul, in large part because they took solace in his message: "In the last analysis, Christ will identify himself with the disinherited." He spoke those words here, and similar ones in ghettos in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in Latin America.

Perhaps above all, John Paul was known here as a voice of the marginalized and for using his pulpit to draw attention to the dark side of capitalism and globalization, which he believed widened the divide between haves and have-nots.

"The human race is facing forms of slavery which are new and more subtle than those of the past," the pope said in 1999, talking about the poor. "For far too many people, freedom remains a word without meaning."

His crowds were always bigger and more emotional in developing countries than in the United States and Europe. The numbers were on his side: Three-quarters of the world's population lives in the developing world. John Paul's call for the superpowers and the super-rich to take more responsibility for the poor -- for instance, by forgiving debt -- was applauded there.

The pope "had great sympathy for the issues of the indigenous peoples," said Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, a Nobel Peace laureate and prominent voice of the region's Indians. John Paul met with these groups often, held Masses specifically for them using Indian languages and rituals, and canonized the first indigenous saint of the Americas, Juan Diego, in Mexico.

"He spoke to me personally before asking publicly for forgiveness from the indigenous people for the conquest and colonization," Menchu said in an interview. After the Spanish arrived here in the 16th century, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, the conversion of native people to Catholicism was often brutal.

Echoing the thoughts of many here, Menchu said people were endeared to John Paul, but not necessarily enamored of the church he represented. While the church hierarchy and the institution are viewed by many as elitist, Menchu said, the pope was seen as a humble man. "There is an affection for him despite all the differences we may have with the church."

John Paul's persistence despite personal suffering -- his physical discomforts from Parkinson's disease and the gunshot wound he suffered in an assassination attempt in 1981 -- added to some people's admiration.

"He is an example of strength," said Matilda Lopez, a middle-age woman begging in the streets of Mexico during the pope's 2002 visit. "As sick as he is, he keeps going," agreed Benito Diaz, an organ grinder playing for donations nearby. "He is an example to follow."

The pope's life as a young man in communist Poland was said to inspire his categorical rejection of any "offshoots" of communism, as he once described liberation theology. In the 1970s, the rising popularity of that theology -- a blend of Catholic teachings and Marxist-inspired calls to class struggle -- caused a fissure in the Latin American church.

Many priests in the region were urging the poor to rise up against dictators and corrupt autocrats. But the pope came down hard against these priests. The church expelled many of them, particularly in Nicaragua, where some clergymen had joined the armed Sandinista movement.

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