MEXICO CITY – Pope Francis urged Mexico’s political and religious leaders to take on drug violence on Saturday, calling for “true justice” and “prophetic courage” against the scourge afflicting the country.
The Argentine-born pontiff used his visit at the National Palace and the capital’s cathedral to send tough messages to the country’s elite on the first full day of a cross-country tour of some of Mexico’s hotspots.
At the palace, with President Enrique Pena Nieto by his side in a patio packed with lawmakers and government officials, Francis told them political leaders have a duty to give “true justice” and “effective security” to Mexicans.
“Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all … society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death,” he said.
It was the kind of message that many ordinary Mexicans, fed up with a decade of drug violence that has left more than 100,000 dead or missing, were hoping for.
Mexico was reminded of its troubles on the eve of the pope’s arrival, when 49 inmates were killed in a prison brawl between rival groups in the north of the country.
Thousands of Catholic faithful who stood outside the National Palace in the historic Zocalo square broke into cheers at the Argentine pontiff’s words.
“Bravo! How great that he tells the government the truth,” one woman shouted.
“The pope put the government to shame with everything that he said. Let’s see if Pena Nieto does the right thing,” said Ramiro Sosa, a 56-year-old shopkeeper from the crime-ridden eastern state of Veracruz.
Pena Nieto gave Francis a red-carpet welcome at the ornate palace, making him the first pope to visit the seat of governments that were militantly secular throughout the 20th century.
While Mexico is the world’s second most populous Catholic country after Brazil, diplomatic relations with the Vatican were only restored in 1992.
“It’s the first time that a pontiff is greeted at this historic place. This reflects the good relationship between the Holy See and Mexico,” Pena Nieto said.
“Your presence contributes to the reaffirmation of our collective vocation for peace and brotherhood, for justice and human rights. The pope’s causes are also Mexico’s causes.”
Francis then visited the capital’s Cathedral next door, where he called on Mexican bishops to combat drug trafficking with “prophetic courage.”
“I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church,” the pope said.
He warned that the “immensity and its scope which devours like a metastasis, and the gravity of the violence which divides with its distorted expressions, do not allow us as pastors of the Church to hide behind anodyne denunciations.”
Francis, who has been dubbed the “pope of the poor” for his appeals for a more humble Church, told the bishop to resist acting like “princes.”
Later, Francis celebrated mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major Catholic shrine, with tens of thousands packed inside and outside the place of worship.
The basilica houses the image of a dark-skinned, or “morenita,” Virgin Mary that Catholics believe miraculously became imprinted on a piece of fabric after she appeared before an indigenous peasant in 1531.
“On that morning, God came close and still comes close to the suffering but resilient hearts of so many mothers, fathers, grandparents who have seen their children leaving, becoming lost or even being taken by criminals,” he said in his homily.
The pope, who has professed his devotion to the “Empress of the Americas,” fulfilled his wish to sit alone in silence in a room facing the image for around 20 minutes. Inside, the 79-year-old pontiff briefly lost his balance and fell into the chair, but he quickly stood up again.
The following days will take the pope to some of Mexico’s notoriously poor and violent regions.
Thousands already lined up outside a university campus late Saturday, prepared to brave the cold night ahead of an outdoor Mass on Sunday in Ecatepec, a city infamous for a spate of murders of women.
His trip ends Wednesday with a major Mass in Ciudad Juarez, the former murder capital of the world, on the U.S. border.