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Pope's visit overshadowed by predecessor's legacy in Mexico

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Thu March 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Mexico for the first time Friday
  • First visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America in his seven-year pontificate
  • Barely a week before visit, a Mexican exhibit opens to honor Pope John Paul II

(CNN) -- It was an exciting day for Laura Dominguez and her 11-year-old daughter Paulina.

They were summoned to their parish, the Saint Cosme and Damian Church in Mexico City to pick up the equivalent of a jackpot for Mexican Catholics: tickets to attend a mass presided by the pope in Gunajuato, about four hours from Mexico City.

Dominguez, a 40-year-old Mexican Red Cross paramedic was elated. "It's very exciting. It's incredible. I never imagined I was going to get the opportunity to attend," Dominguez said.

Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Mexico for the first time Friday. This is also his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America in his seven-year pontificate. Mexico boasts the second-largest population of Catholics in the world after Brazil, a country the pope visited in 2007 (Brazil's predominant language is Portuguese). He also visited the United States in 2008.

But Benedict's trip will likely be overshadowed by his deceased predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Barely a week before Benedict's arrival, an exhibit to honor John Paul opened in Mexico City. The exhibit, entitled "John Paul II in Private," is at Mexico City's Palacio de los Deportes (Sports Palace). It includes 200 personal items used by John Paul throughout his life and papacy.

Mexico spends millions to greet pope

Exhibit organizer Karla Betanzo de la Rosa says they're expecting as many as 300,000 visitors in the three months the exhibit will last. It ends June 15. Betanzo is also an admirer of the late pontiff, who first visited Mexico in 1979.

"It was such a magnetic energy that you could feel whenever he was around really. It would just transform the people when he visited," Betanzo said.

John Paul's shoes, which are also part of the exhibit, are indeed big shoes to fill. Mexico was the first country he visited in 1979, shortly after becoming pope. He would visit four more times in 1990, 1993, 1999 and 2002, traveling to 12 of Mexico's 31 states. Mexican Catholics called the Polish pontiff "Mexico's pope." John Paul was an energetic 58-year-old when he first arrived in Mexico in 1979.

The Rev. José de Jesús Aguilar, spokesman with the Mexico City Archdiocese, says it's just a matter of time before Mexican Catholics learn to love Benedict. "When John Paul came to Mexico for the first time nobody knew him. It was only after getting to know him that people started loving him. Therefore, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. Let us welcome Benedict to this land and show him that Mexicans are good hosts," Aguilar says.

A survey conducted by Demotecnia, a national polling firm, found that more than three-quarters of Mexican Catholics are not excited by the visit or less excited than they were when the previous pope visited.

One place the pope will not visit is Mexico City. Benedict is 85 and the city's high altitude poses a risk to the pope's health, say Vatican officials.

Dominguez still treasures the previous pope's visits, including to her native Mexico City, but adds, "There's no comparison between them; they're very different."

"Pope John Paul loved being close to the people."

Of his decision not to visit Mexico City, Dominguez says, "I know there's a lot of conflict right now, but we don't like the fact that he's not coming to Mexico City. But I'm sure he's a generous man as well."

There's hope for a renewal of affection in the new generation. Dominguez's daughter Paulina says she's really looking forward to the pope's mass. "It's like watching my favorite person, a superhero."

CNN producer Nick Parker in Mexico City contributed to this story.

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