Pope Francis on Tuesday encouraged young Mexicans to “dare to dream” of a crime-free life and priests to stay strong despite relentless violence as he visited a region lacerated by drug gangs.
The pontiff made the pleas at two huge masses in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, a western state where farmers took up arms in 2013 to fight off the cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel.
Michoacan endured some of the most gruesome episodes of Mexico’s drug war, which has left 100,000 people dead or missing in the past decade.
Francis celebrated mass with young people at a packed football stadium, where the Catholic faithful sang the classic Mexican refrain, “ay, ay, ay, ay, sing and don’t cry!”
The 79-year-old pontiff took notes as young people told him about violence and lack of job opportunities.
He then urged the crowd to reject a life of crime, telling them they are not just the hope but “the wealth of this land.”
“Dare to dream,” Francis said, earning cheers while some wiped away tears.
“I understand that often it is difficult to feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror,” he added.
“It is a lie to believe that the only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death,” the pope said.
“Jesus would never ask us to be assassins; rather, he calls us to be disciples.”
Many hoped that the pope’s words would heal the country.
“Maybe the pope’s message won’t reach the cartels but the authorities will get it to get to work and arrest the criminals,” said Guadalupe Olivares, a 43-year-old accountant.
At the end of the event, some over-enthusiastic people nearly pulled down the pope as he greeted a person on a wheelchair. Visibly angry, the pope said twice “Don’t be selfish!”
– ‘Paralyzing injustice’ –
Earlier, Francis led another outdoor mass with 20,000 priests, nuns and seminarians, who danced, sang and listened to him as he told them to not despair, despite the challenges.
Around 40 clergymen, seminarians and Catholic lay people have been killed in the past decade, including five in Michoacan, according to the Catholic Multimedia Center.
“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.
“Faced with this reality, the devil can overcome us with one of his favorite weapons: resignation.”
The pope cited the example of Michoacan’s first bishop, Vasco Vazquez de Quiroga, who defended the indigenous Purepechas from mistreatment “in the midst of so much paralyzing injustice” in the 16th century.
“The pope spoke clearly to us. He made us see that we can’t remain silent witnesses in our life of isolation and meditation,” said Sister Fatima Esemita, a nun from the central state of Puebla.
“We must give witness to help correct this wicked path.”
Francis has already used his five-day trip, which ends with a mass at the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Wednesday, to press political leaders to provide “effective security” to Mexicans and for bishops to show “prophetic courage” against gangs.
– ‘The Craziest One’ –
Between masses, the pope visited the city’s 17th century cathedral, where he met with children and was serenaded by a choir.
It was near the cathedral that two grenades blew up in a packed plaza during independence day festivities on September 15, 2008, killing eight people and injuring some 100. Drug cartels were the main suspects.
The gangs mainly afflicted rural areas of Michoacan, especially the fertile lime and avocado region known as “Tierra Caliente” (“Hot Land”).
The country came to know La Familia Michoacana in 2006, when the cartel rolled five severed heads down a dance floor with a message promising “divine justice.”
After the gang’s founder, self-styled messiah Nazario “The Craziest One” Moreno, was wrongly declared dead in a 2010 gunfight, a new cartel, the Knights Templar, appeared. He was killed for good in 2014.
Fed up with the police’s failure to quell killings, kidnappings and extortion, farmers formed vigilante groups and authorities finally intervened to capture and kill the cartel’s leaders.