Enrique Peña Nieto on Tuesday became the first Mexican president from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to publicly attend a Catholic Mass. The 46-year-old Peña Nieto, who took office last December, traveled to Rome to attend services at St. Peter’s held to formally install Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis I.
His attendance marks a milestone in Mexican-Vatican relations, which had been non-existent for 130 years.
Relations were officially broken in 1867, but a struggle between pro-Catholic politicians and non-believers continued until the so-called religious Cristero War broke out in the early 20th century. It ended in 1929, when Plutarco Elías Calles helped found the National Revolutionary Party, a predecessor to the PRI, which continued the anti-clerical restrictions that he imposed while president from 1924 to 1928.
For six decades Mexican presidents were on the most part very discreet when it came to meeting with Catholic leaders. That was until 1992, when Carlos Salinas de Gotari reformed Mexican law officially reestablishing relations with the Holy See and allowing religious organizations to legally exist.
Despite the moves, neither Salinas de Gotari nor his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, publicly attended Mass.
But with the PRI back in power after 12 years of National Action Party (PAN) governments, Peña Nieto has decided to give new emphasis to his relations with Church leaders. Even when he served as governor of Mexico State from 2005-2011, Peña Nieto gave the Vatican special attention. For example, in 2009 he introduced his then-fiancée, former soap opera actress and now-first lady Angélica Rivera, to Pope Benedict XVI and announced his plans to marry her.
During its 71 years in government, from 1929-2000, the PRI stressed a lay society for Mexico’s mostly Catholic citizens. Restrictions were placed on prayers in public places and broadcasts on radio and television of religious services. Even priests and ministers from other denominations were not allowed to vote.
But the government’s attitude began to change following the historic visit in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, who was received by then-President José López Portillo, not as an official head of state, but as a religious leader.
“May your mission of peace and concord, and the efforts for justice you will carry out, be successful in the coming days,” López Portillo said. “I now leave you in the hands of the Church’s hierarchy and its faithful.”
But despite the president’s subtle welcome, hundreds of thousands of Catholics poured out onto the streets to welcome the pope, whose visit was covered live on radio and television. The contradiction of his apparent public indifference to John Paul II was discovered when it was revealed much later that López Portillo had quietly ushered the pope to Los Pinos presidential palace, where he could hold a private audience with his mother.
During Miguel de la Madrid’s term in office (1982-1988), no official visits took place. It was not until his successor, Salinas de Gotari, came to power, that the pope returned to Mexico on two occasions, in 1990 and 1993.
Vicente Fox, who was successful in dismantling the PRI’s six-decade one party rule by being elected the first PAN president, sparked controversy among lay sectors when in 2002 he kissed John Paul’s ring during the pope’s fifth and final visit to Mexico.
Felipe Calderón, also from PAN, gave Pope Benedict XVI a milder welcome, simply shaking Pope Benedict XVI’s hand when he met him in Guanajuato last March. Nevertheless, Calderón and four of the five presidential candidates, including Peña Nieto, who faced off last July, attended the pope’s Mass.
On his way to Rome on Sunday, Peña Nieto told reporters traveling with him aboard his plane that he was going to the Vatican “with the intention of greeting [Pope Francis], and congratulating him on his election.
“And I want to reiterate to him that Mexico wants cordial and respectful relations,” he said.