On February 15, 2020, the Vatican elevated the mission territory of the Cancun-Chetumal prelature to a diocese. The Legionaries of Christ have been working in the prelature since it was founded in 1970, at the request of Pope Paul VI. The establishment of a diocese is the culmination of decades of work in developing the local church through collaboration with the lay faithful and other religious orders.
Although the decree went out on February 15, the official ceremony to establish the diocese will happen on May 3. Bishop Pedro Pablo Elizondo Cárdenas, LC, who was the prelate before this change, will become the new diocesan bishop. He has been overseeing the territorial prelature of Cancun-Chetumal as a bishop since 2004 when the first bishop, Jorge Bernal Vargas, LC, retired at age 75.
Bishop Pedro Pablo began his press conference by speaking about how this change indicated a “great mission” that depended on the local Church and all who are involved there. This decree, he continued, “recognizes the maturity and the missionary and pastoral work of so many years and so many people.”
In 1970, Paul VI took this territory, comprising the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, out of the Archdiocese of Yucatán and the Diocese of Campeche to make a new prelature. Due to the lack of local priests and the absence of Church structure, it was assigned as a territorial prelature, which is similar to a diocese but is generally entrusted to a religious community with the mandate to provide many of the priests and direct it as a mission.
Paul VI entrusted the care and ministry of this prelature of 20,000 square miles to the Legionaries of Christ in 1970. At the time, it consisted of a few mission churches that mainly served the descendants of the ancient Mayan civilization. It had 13 priests, 16 religious sisters, and five parishes serving 84,000 people.
The Legion began working to build a foundation for a strong local Church that would include many parishes and local vocations so that it could become a diocese in its own right. Its elevation this year shows the fruitfulness of the missionary and pastoral work done there over these past 50 years. By 2016, the most current year records are available for, the sparse numbers of 1970 had grown to 126 priests, 124 religious sisters, 86 religious brothers and 59 parishes serving almost 900,000 Catholics.
Much of the population growth has been driven by tourism in destinations like Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Isla Mujeres. When development began in 1970, Cancún had three residents managing a coconut plantation, and the nearby fishing village of Puerto Juárez had just over 100 residents. Now Cancun has a population of 750,000 with the second busiest airport in Mexico. The prelature was originally the prelature of Chetumal but after the growth of Cancun, the Diocesan See moved there in 1996 and the prelature was renamed Cancun-Chetumal.
The Legionaries of Christ, in collaboration with the local laity, and other priests and religious, have built over 300 churches and oratories in the territory, many Catholic Schools and universities, many of which Legion operates, including the Universidad Anáhuac Cancún, and a Mano Amiga school with 875 students for underprivileged children, which you can sponsor through Catholic World Mission.
The CEM, Mexican bishops’ conference (equivalent to the USCCB), issued a statement on the occasion of the institution of the new diocese: “We join in joy and prayer for the new establishment of the Diocese of Cancun-Chetumal and wish them fruitful evangelizing work in the Lord.”
Fr. John Connor, LC, general director of the Legionaries of Christ offered his congratulations in a letter. He stated, “What a great gift, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of our dear diocese of Cancún-Chetumal, during this jubilee year of the Holy Cross! You [Bishop Pedro Pablo] know that I am praying very much for you: that God will keep guiding you as a good shepherd.”
Bishop Pedro Pablo issued a statement thanking God. He noted this decision by the Pope “means looking at Christ, the Good Shepherd, with the deep conviction of living the pastoral structures of a diocese, as they are marked in the Code of Canon Law.” Number 369 in Canon law defines a diocese as “a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the presbyterium… It constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative.” Being a diocese, they will now establish a fuller diocesan curia with all the usual bodies of authority.
The diocese sent out a note saying, “Now we begin the pastoral work of creating organic and specialized structures to work on four pastoral priorities: vocations, family, youth, and lay people.”
Bishop Pedro Pablo also encouraged “walking forward, always trusting in God” and invited “each one, from his own vocation, to respond to the call to the mission of living in a united Church and thus manifest a Samaritan Church that sees our brother in need in each other.”
Although there is a lot of wealth in Cancun’s vacationers, much of the diocese remains poor, with the outlying areas still being subsistence farming in scattered jungle villages. The poverty of the residents affects the larger cities as well. Playa del Carmen has 250,000 people but only six churches, with plan s for others that are awaiting the funds to complete them.
Bishop Pedro Pablo Elizondo was born in Zamora, Mexico. He was ordained a priest in December 1982. From 1982 to 2001 he was a formator and novice instructor in the Legionaries of Christ’s formation centers in the United States, Ireland, Spain and Chile. From 2001 to 2004 he was the vicar-general of Cancun-Chetumal Prelature, before becoming prelate and now diocesan bishop.