MEXICO CITY (AP) — Pope Francis challenged Mexico's political and ecclesial elites on Saturday to provide their people with security, justice and courageous pastoral care to confront the drug-inspired violence and corruption that are wracking the country, delivering a toughlove message to Mexico's ruling classes on his first full day in the country.
Francis received a raucous welcome from cheering Mexicans who lined his motorcade route seven deep. He followed with a pointed criticism of how church and state leaders here have often failed their people, especially the poorest and most marginalized.
"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, sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development," he told government authorities at the presidential palace.
In a subsequent hard-hitting speech to his own bishops, Francis challenged church leaders known for their deference to Mexico's wealthy and powerful to courageously denounce the "insidious threat" posed by the drug trade and not hide behind their own privilege and careers.
He told them to be true pastors, close to their people, and to develop a coherent plan to help Mexicans "finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened."
The speech was met with tepid applause, with only a handful of bishops standing in ovation.
Francis' entire five-day trip to Mexico is shining an uncomfortable spotlight on the church's shortcomings and the government's failure to solve entrenched social ills that plague many parts of the country: poverty, rampant drug-inspired gangland killings, extortion, the kidnapping of women, crooked cops and failed public services.
Over the coming days Francis will travel to the crime-ridden Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, preach to Indians in poverty-stricken Chiapas, offer solidarity to victims of drug violence in Morelia and, finally, at a Mass in Ciudad Juarez, pay respects to migrants who have died trying to reach the United States across the nearby border.
The grueling schedule appeared to be already taking a toll: By Saturday evening, Francis seemed tired and winded. He appeared to doze off during Mass and lost his balance and fell into a chair set up for him to pray before the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The 79-year-old Francis has had an exhausting two days, with back-to-back public events, dozens of miles spent standing in his pope mobile and a seven-hour time zone difference. In addition, Mexico City's altitude of more than 7,000 feet provides a challenge to anyone not acclimated — and perhaps more so for Francis, who lost part of one lung as a young man.
Francis began his first full day in Mexico with a winding ride into the capital's historic center, to the delight of tens of thousands greeting history's first Latin American pope. Despite an exhausting Friday that involved a historic embrace with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Francis obliged their demands and stopped to hand out rosaries to the elderly, sick and disabled who gathered in front of his quarters while in Mexico.
The mileage that Francis is clocking standing up in his openair popemobile is a testament to his appreciation of Mexicans' need to see him up close: After a 14-mile nighttime ride from the airport and the 9 miles logged Saturday morning, Francis still has about 93 miles more to go in the popemobile before his trip ends Wednesday.
In a nod to his thrifty ways, three of the five popemobiles Francis will use are being recycled from his U.S. trip in September. Francis is also sticking to an economy car when he's not in a popemobile, using a tiny white Fiat to move around.
Francis began Saturday by meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto at the presidential palace. He told the president and other members of government that public officials must be honest and upright and not be seduced by privilege or corruption. He said political leaders have a "particular duty" to ensure their people have "indispensable" material and spiritual goods.