REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Take a look around Mexico's most important Roman Catholic cathedral and you will observe reverence to the pope. However, it's not the same pope who arrives in Mexico in less than a week.
The late John Paul II continues to dominate the spiritual vision of the faithful in Mexico, and probably much of Latin America. He came to Mexico five times in his long papacy, choosing Mexico as his first overseas destination.
Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul upon his death in April of 2005, arrives in Leon, in Mexico's conservative central Guanajuato state, on Friday, before continuing on to Cuba three days later. It is his first trip to the Spanish-speaking Americas; he visited Brazil in 2007 and the United States the following year.
"We still love John Paul. We don't know Benedict," said Veronica Duran, who was at the cathedral Saturday, praying under a larger-than-life portrait of John Paul.
At the curio shop inside the cathedral -- where another large picture of John Paul is displayed (no Benedict) -- Isabel Mosqueda says medals, prayer cards and posters of John Paul are big sellers. Second only to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
Benedict? For 5 pesos, about 4 cents, you can buy a stamp-sized, laminated picture of him. Mosqueda says she's confident its sales will pick up, eventually.
It shouldn't be surprising that John Paul, seven years after his death, still figures so prominently in Mexican religious consciousness. He was a charismatic pontiff who embraced local cultures; Benedict is far more cerebral and staid. Also, Benedict was already an elderly man when he was chosen pope; John Paul had many vibrant, active years as he initially traveled the globe as a relatively young head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Benedict also arrives in Mexico at a time the church has taken on an increasingly politicized role, working arm in arm with the conservative federal government to fight issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, which have been legalized in Mexico City but not elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, at the Vatican on Sunday, Benedict, in his weekly appearance, asked the faithful to pray for him in his voyage to Latin America.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Top photo: Catholics pray at an altar in the cathedral of Mexico City, under a large portrait of the late Pope John Paul II, on Saturday, March 17, 2012. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times. Lower photo: At the cathedral's souvenir shop, medals and pictures of John Paul are bigger sellers. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times