IN GOING to Puebla to meet the somewhat divided bishops of South America, the Pepe has done a brave and decisive thing. The moans of the ultraprogressives are already audible.
The flip explanation is that he is a man from a Right-wing Church compelled to deal with a Left-wing government facing a situation in which a Left-wing Church is facing a Right-wing series of governments. It's nice and neat, but neither proposition is true.
But it is marvellous that this, his first great test, should happen in Mexico. Now, I have never been to Mexico, but then I did not attend the Field of the Cloth of Gold or the Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket -but I am prepared to write about both at prodigious length.
I suppose the conquest of Mexico was one of the strangest things in history. Cortes had only 400 Spaniards with him when he destroyed the Aztec Empire.
It was not one of the noblest passages in the history of the Roman Church, but at least it replaced a blood cult which demanded the sacrifice of 80,000 victims for the consecration of a new temple at the capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Puebla, not far from Mexico City, played a considerable role in the country's history. It has a vast and splendid baroque cathedral Its early bishops and friars genuinely tried to protect the Indians.
And then, in 1810, the Spanish colonial government was driven out and the country, totally in experienced in self-rule of any sort, was left in chaos until a dark-faced, small, unsmiling Indian in a black suit and a high collar called Juarez became President in 1861.
He was single-minded in his longing for a Mexico for the Mexicans. Not even Ireland produced so utter and charmless, ruthless and great a patriot.
It's a long story, but the dispossessed Spanish landlords got Napoleon III, who was owed money by the new and radical Mexico. to present them with an Emperor. He sent them an idealistic young Hapsburg called Maximilian, the younger brother of the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.
He knew he was going to his death and had a complicated nervous breakdown before leaving.
The French then had a gar rison in Mexido, and to prepare for his arrival fought Juarez's men. They were defeated at Puebla by 4,000 Mexicans who used guns left over from Waterloo and bought from the British. Later, the Mexicans were defeated in the same city and Puebla was the first town to welcome Maximilian and his wife Carlotta with enthusiasm.
In 1866 Napoleon III — not on the whole a gentleman, though Queen Victoria liked him — withdrew his troops. The Empress Carlotta went to Europe to remonstrate, distraught and prematurely aged.
Maximilian had to surrender and was shot. He died superbly. His Empress went raving mad and while appealing personally to Pius IX pinched his hot chocolate because she was sure it was not poisoned. She is said to have been the only woman to have stayed the night in the Vatican, officially. She died, still deranged, 60 years later, outside Brussels.
Mexico slipped into the most dreary and deadly form of anticlericalism. Graham Green wrote a masterpiece of a travel book about it called "The Lawless Roads". It describes the tedious emptiness of a simple people forcibly deprived of their Church and their God. It is a horrifying book, and compulsive reading.
Cathedrals were replaced by concrete playgrounds. It varied from province to province. Priests were shot. The Faith survived. In the 1920s there was a genuine squalid dictatorial persecution of the Church whose chief architect was a President Calles (1924-28).
The tradition of government in Mexico is still anti-clerical in a musty sort of 19th century, bunsen-burner and test-tube, stiffcollared and pince-nez, enlightened sort of way. The visit of the Pope was pleasantly embarrassing to the authorities and he was technically liable as a foreigner to a 10-dollar fine for saying Mass in public.
The other odd thing about Puebla is that it had a convent that went underground -literally. It was founded in 1678. It disappeared in Juarez's day. It was dedicated to St Monica. Its only entrance was through a secret door in a private house. A disaffected maidservant gave it away, in 1938.
The authorities found 40 nuns with a chapel and living quarters and gardens. They used to bury their dead and after a time exhume them and pile their bones into a pit.
There was a great deal of the most pious painting on the walls and the nuns used to sell lace and embroidery for their keep. Most of Puebla knew about them, but then most of Puebla was yearningly Catholic and none the worse for being rather simple about it.
I doubt if Mexico will ever be quite the same again after John Paul 11. But Puebla of the halfmillion inhabitants and 100 churches will be reassured. Anticlericalism is a shallow foundation upon which to build a society, quite different from the separation of Church and State.
But then the anti-clericalism of Mexico, unenlightened and old hat, was simply the fashion of the oligarchy. But will they listen to their people any more than they did to the once intolerable Spanish oligarchs?