In Mexican gangland, pope tells priests to be close to flock, fight violence


Pope Francis urged Mexican priests Tuesday not to resign themselves to a society dominated by drug-fueled violence and corruption, but to get out of their comfortable lives and fight the injustices tormenting their flock.

Francis issued the appeal during a Mass for Mexico’s clergy in the capital of the state of Michoacan, a hotbed of the country’s drug trade. It was the first event of a daylong visit to Morelia that includes a meeting with young people, a fixture of papal trips that often produces some of the most memorable and spontaneous moments.

Francis’ visit to Morelia, though, is also a symbolic vote of confidence for the city’s archbishop, Alberto Suarez Inda. Like Francis, Suarez Inda has called for Mexican bishops to be closer to their people and not act like bureaucrats or princes. Last year Francis made him a cardinal — an unambiguous sign that Francis wants “peripheral” pastors like him at the helm of the church hierarchy.

In his homily, Francis told the priests and nuns to not become resigned to the problems around them or give in to paralysis, which he called the devil’s “favorite weapon.”

“What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again when faced with this reality which seems to have become a permanent system?” Francis asked.

“I think we can sum it up on one word: resignation.”

Rather than give up, Francis urged the clerics to look to the model of Vasco de Quiroga, a 16th-century Spanish bishop who came to New Spain and founded utopian-style indigenous communities where agriculture and handicrafts were taught.

A Franciscan, he was affectionately known by many indigenous as “Tata Vasco,” or “Father Vasco” in the Purepecha language.

Francis said that when Vasco de Quiroga saw Indians being “sold, humiliated and homeless in marketplaces” due to colonial exploitation, he did not resign himself to inaction but rather was inspired to fight injustice.

Since beginning his Mexico trip Friday night, Francis has repeatedly taken to task the Mexican church leadership, many of whom have cozy ties with Mexico’s political and financial elite and are loath to speak out on behalf of the poor and victims of today’s social injustices.

On Saturday in Mexico City, he scolded what he called gossiping, career-minded and aloof clerics, and admonished them to stand by their flock and offer “prophetic courage” in facing down the drug trade. In an inscription in a seminary guestbook, he urged future priests to be pastors of God and not “clerics of the state.”

Suarez Inda clearly backs Francis’ program, echoing the pope’s admonition that “pastors should not be bureaucrats and we bishops should not have the mentality or attitude of princes.”

In 2013, at what was perhaps the height of the violence in Michoacan, Suarez Inda led eight other bishops in signing an unusually outspoken letter accusing government authorities of “complicity, forced or willing,” with criminal gangs. It urged priests to “do whatever is in your power” to help people in an atmosphere of kidnappings, killings and extortion and to “carry out concrete actions in favor of peace and reconciliation.”

He has called for Mexico’s church leaders to put aside their comfortable lives and become pastors with the “smell of their sheep.” It’s a famous phrase of the pope’s about the need for bishops to accompany their flock closely through life’s ups and downs.

The pope “shakes up the conscience of priests in order that we not be mediocre, installed priests who simply seek social promotion, but rather that we truly live our calling to serve the people with great generosity,” Suarez Inda told the Mexican newspaper El Universal last month.

Suarez Inda was also part of a group of clergy from Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state who prepared a report on Mexico’s drug violence last year that he said left Francis “very shocked and impressed.”

Much of Michoacan is part of a region called Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Lands, known for both its blistering temperatures and brutal tactics by gangsters eager to control lucrative drug-production territory and smuggling routes.

By 2013, the pseudo-religious, evangelical-inspired Knights Templar cartel was widely kidnapping and extorting money and dominating the state’s economic and political scene so much that local farmers took up arms against them. But the uprising by the vigilante-style “self-defense” forces brought little peace to the state, with the groups fighting among themselves even as new criminal gangs sprang up or tried to muscle their way into Michoacan, a big source of methamphetamine production.

“I’m excited about the pope’s visit, but the reality is that people are afraid. Right now there is a festive atmosphere and a lot of police, but in the day-to-day it’s not that calm. Crime has risen,” said Yulisa Duran, an 18-year-old nursing student sitting with her boyfriend in Morelia’s main square.

“I lived in a tiny town that was very gentle, and then the (cartel) came in,” Duran added.

On Monday, Francis denounced centuries-old exploitation and exclusion of Mexico’s indigenous people in the southern state of Chiapas and said the world can learn from their traditions.

Francis wraps up his five-day visit on Wednesday by traveling to Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, for a cross-border Mass expected to focus heavily on the plight of migrants.

When Francis visited Mexico’s gang-infested heartland on Tuesday, he urged priests to fan out and combat the scourges of corruption and drugs trafficking that have stoked a decade of bloodletting that the government has been unable to stop.

Gang wars over the lucrative methamphetamine trade have torn the western state of Michoacan apart. Widespread kidnapping and extortion by gangs have sparked an uprising by vigilante groups.

The pope visited Morelia, Michoacan’s picturesque capital known for its Spanish colonial architecture, amid tight security given scattered outbursts of violence in recent months.

“What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity, and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability?” the pope asked an estimated 30,000 priests, nuns and seminarians at a Mass in a stadium in Morelia.

Tens of thousands more people lined the streets outside the venue for a glimpse of the first Latin American pope, who is traveling to some of the poorest and most violent corners of the country on his Feb. 12-17 trip to Mexico.

The Argentine pontiff urged priests not to be resigned to evils around them like drug trafficking, and not to remain entrenched in their churches, but rather to head out to the front lines to help those suffering.

Before the pope entered, the crowd in the stadium counted aloud to 43, a gesture to remember dozens of trainee teachers who were abducted and apparently massacred by a drug gang in league with corrupt police in 2014 in the neighboring state of Guerrero.

Relatives of the students have lobbied for a meeting with the pope, but his spokesman has said some of them will be at a Mass on Wednesday when the pope visits Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border, once one of the world’s deadliest cities

“It’s a miracle that he has chosen to come here to lift our spirits,” said housewife Maria Hernandez, 66. “Michoacan has suffered so much.”

In his first trip to Mexico as pontiff, Francis has had some sharp words for a privileged elite that he accused of exploiting the nation’s poor.

In Mexico City, he chastised bishops for being gossips obsessed with coddling wealthy patrons and failing to denounce the evils of the drug trade.

Francis was set to visit Morelia’s downtown cathedral on Tuesday and meet with youth groups.

“Everyone is hoping he brings some comfort, something that makes the people react and see things differently,” said Miguel Angel Ruiz, a 58-year-old industrial consultant.

In early 2014, Michoacan descended into bitter conflict as vigilante groups took up arms against the powerful Knights Templar drug gang.

President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government later sent in the army and forged an uneasy alliance with the vigilantes, offering them jobs in the police force, but progress was muted.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war over the last decade.