MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Thousands of devout Mexicans attended a Mass for the
sick on Sunday, the culmination of a four-day national religious conference aimed
at raising the Catholic Church's public profile.
The Mass concluded the country's second-ever National Eucharistic Congress,
series of unusually public religious events that appeared to symbolize a new boldness
for the Church, which Mexican law has relegated to the background for 150 years.
"In other countries religion is taken far more into account in public life,"
62-year-old school teacher Arnoldo Sintas as he helped his aging mother-in-law into
the Guadalupe Basilica for the special ceremony.
The highlight of the religious congress was an open-air Mass held Saturday
in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza -- the nation's most important public space.
Nearly 150 bishops, archbishops and several cardinals appeared together
platform, while tens of thousands of faithful gathered below.
"Nobody should be frightened of Jesus Christ. Christ is not trying to compete
with anybody. He isn't trying to replace anybody," said Cardinal Norberto Rivera,
referring to a century of state restrictions on religion, rooted in the
post-independence reaction to the church's collusion with Spanish colonial rule.
"There hasn't been anything like this since 1924," said an emotional Maria
Calderon as she watched the Mass while protecting herself from the drizzle with
a sheet of plastic.
The 72-year-old nun was referring to the last Eucharistic Congress, held
before the state intensified its crackdown on religion, setting off the Catholic
uprising known as the Cristera War.
The war ended with the Church promising not to rise up against the staunchly
secularist 1917 constitution.
But gradually the church's freedom and behind-the-scenes influence increased,
but its role in public life remained limited. A 1992 reform abolished many rules,
such as the ban on wearing habits in public.
But in March, clergy openly challenged one remaining restriction _ against
involvement in politics -- by speaking out on the upcoming presidential elections,
scheduled for July 2.
In one letter, the Church called for a vote against abortion, a seeming
nod to the
main opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, whose conservative center-right
National Action Party has some roots in the Cristera uprising.
On Saturday in the troubled southern state of Chiapas, the new Catholic
Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, promised Zapatista rebels that he would intercede on
their behalf to resolve a 6-year-old conflict with the government.
With 100 million people, Mexico is one of the most populous predominantly
Catholic nations in the world. Nonetheless, suspicion of the church's drive for
greater involvement in national affairs runs deep, partly because politics is
popularly perceived as an inherently dirty business.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.