Unless you were living under a rock, you know the nation—especially Catholics and the media — were enthralled over Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. last week.
Though I’m not Catholic, I admire greatly this Pope, who’s upset the status quo of his church, challenged the world’s economic and political powers that be, and shown nothing but love for humanity since becoming the church’s esteemed leader in March 2013.
I just wish he could have come out to New Mexico, where I’m sure he would have received an incredible reception.
About 69 million Americans are Catholic, making it the largest religious body in the U.S. But that’s only 22 percent of the U.S. population, while here in the Land of Enchantment, the percentage of Catholics is much higher. According to beliefnet.com, 40.2 percent of New Mexicans are Catholic—with historical and cultural roots that go all the way back to the 1500s.
From the first Spanish colony founded in what is now New Mexico, Catholicism has played an important role in the region’s development. It started with the Franciscans, who came to the area with Coronado and established Santa Fe (which means “holy faith” in Spanish). Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the U.S., and the first permanent European settlement in the American Southwest.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 slowed the march of Catholicism across this region, but it didn’t stop it. The church grew steadily throughout the region as Catholics from other European nations moved into the Southwest.
In 1853, a priest from France, Jean Batiste Lamy, was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe; then, in 1875, he became archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Lamy played a major role in the development of Catholicism not only in New Mexico, but also throughout the region as the Santa Fe archdiocese reached beyond New Mexico into parts of Arizona, Colorado and Texas.
Catholicism in New Mexico has many unique features that are indicative of the cultural grounding we now have. The adobe architecture of its churches is unique to this region, while the faithful were instrumental in creating the state’s first school system and some of its first hospitals.
Of course, there have been dark moments in Catholicism, even in modern times. New Mexico did not escape the sexual abuse scandals that have haunted the church in recent years. In 1993, Archbishop Robert Sanchez, the first Hispanic archbishop appointed in the U.S., abruptly stepped down amid allegations of sexual encounters he had with several women and for failing to prevent and investigate allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in New Mexico. That certainly contributed to a statewide decline of Catholic Church membership in recent years.
Pope Francis, however, is changing the paradigm for the Catholic Church. He’s met with sexual abuse victims and has apologized for priests’ abusive behavior, and has changed the “tone” of Catholic faith throughout the world. His impassioned pleas for humanity to respond to global warming, seeing it as a direct threat to God’s creation, has ruffled a lot of feathers both inside and outside the church, while his leadership (by example) in reaching out to the poor and downtrodden—and of less materialistic ambitions—has been a cause for consternation for some capitalists, while serving as an inspiration for many, many others.
I think it’s safe to say Pope Francis is on his way to being one of the most influential Popes of our time. He’s breathing new life into his church. The around-the-clock media coverage of his visit to the U.S. is indicative of the fascination and love people have with the man.
More importantly, however, he’s serving as an instrument of change, and is putting a new face on the oldest and largest Christian denomination in the world.
While some find that discerning, others find it inspiring. It seems to me that, to remain relevant in the modern world, the Catholic Church must return to some of its most basic Christian tenets, including good stewardship and devoted service to the less fortunate. That’s what Pope Francis is doing.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what his impact on our state would be if he came here. It would be an event of monumental proportions, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike—and while I doubt it would convert New Mexicans like me, I’d sure enough turn out to hear his message.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and general manager of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.