Pope warns Mexican church against dealing with 'today's Pharoahs' at the expense of the poor

With bluntness rare for a pope, Francis wasted no time on his first full day in Mexico on Saturday, taking to task both the political elite here and the often-ineffective church leadership for failing to confront the grievous ills facing this troubled country.

Pope Francis, who has made work on behalf of the downtrodden the hallmark of his papacy, had promised he would be direct in his messages to this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. And he was.

Speaking early Saturday at the official welcoming ceremony in Mexico’s 17th-century National Palace, with President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Cabinet and an array of politicians as his audience, the pope spoke of the need for “men and women who are upright, honest and capable of working for the common good” to build a future of hope in a land of despair.

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“Each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few, to the detriment of the good of all,” Francis said, “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.”

With that, the first pope from the Americas touched on the most intractable problems plaguing Mexicans, as many had hoped he would, especially as they increasingly see their government as impervious to demands and criticism.

Peña Nieto did not react to the pope’s remarks, and in his own opening speech stuck to generalities that confront the world, with little specific reference to the country he has led for three years.

Among the many problems in Mexico — including violence that has killed priests, journalists, politicians and women, among tens of thousands of others — Peña Nieto has also been implicated in a series of conflict-of-interest scandals in which his family or closest aides benefited financially.

Peña Nieto gave Francis a tour of the palace’s majestic murals by Diego Rivera, which portray Mexican history — including violence inflicted by conquistador and colonial-era priests against indigenous peoples.

Outside the palace in the massive Zocalo square, one-time hub of both colonial and Aztec civilizations, and along the streets leading there, thousands of Mexicans clamored for a glimpse of the pontiff as his motorcade swept through. With streets and businesses closed, a holiday atmosphere prevailed. Church bells tolled and music was everywhere.

Many slept outdoors overnight in the vast plaza, with the hope of getting close to the pontiff, who later celebrated Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and revered throughout the Americas

After the National Palace ceremony, Pope Francis went to Mexico City’s cathedral, where he delivered an especially hard-hitting address to the church leadership. He scolded cardinals and bishops for focusing too much attention on cavorting with the wealthy and influential, at the expense of the indigenous, poor and besieged.

“We don’t need princes but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses,” he said, adding that they should not engage in back-room deals with “today’s Pharaohs.”

Addressing what many see as inaction by the church in protecting its parishioners as well as its own priests, killed and harassed by drug gangs, the pope was stern. “I beg that you not underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the church," he said.

Departing from his prepared text, the pope told his bishops that if they have disputes among themselves, they should "fight like men ... men of God." He very publicly aired — with the eyes of the world upon him — what has been a largely private conflict within the Mexican church.

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Many in the leadership argue over how critical to be of the government's policies, how much succor to give migrants often shunned by government agencies, how tough a stand to take against drug traffickers and their government or police accomplices.

The pope seemed to indicate he was tired of dithering, backbiting and what he called gossip. 

All in all, it was a remarkable inaugural turn of Pope Francis’ week-long mission to Mexico, which also aims to symbolically trace the dangerous path migrants take through the country attempting to reach the United States. Later in the week he will preside over Mass at Mexico’s border with Texas, in the once ultra-violent city of Ciudad Juarez, with a sojourn by the fence dividing the two countries.

On Saturday, meanwhile, the Mexican capital of some 20 million people was a festive celebration of the pope’s visit.

Among those camped out in the Zocalo was the Gonzalez-Suarez family, after traveling three hours from the state of Queretaro to Mexico City to see Pope Francis.

“We spent a very cold night, but we don't mind. Our dream is to see the pope,” said Enrique Gonzalez, 52, a car dealer accompanied by his wife and two sons.

Julio Valdes, a 17-year-old student who scored a ticket thanks to good grades at his Catholic school, waited to enter the cathedral. “I can't explain the immense joy that it means to me to see Pope Francis. I've been here eight hours and I'm very excited.”

The city had mounted a massive clean-up in advance of the pope’s visit, scattering the many street vendors, but street sellers were back in force early Saturday downtown with varied pope memorabilia — flags and key chains, necklaces and bracelets, all with likenesses of Francis.

One hot-selling item: a banner that featured an image of the bespectacled pope and the Virgin of Guadalupe, flanking the Mexican flag. Vendors kept an eye out for police who were still cracking down on street sales.

“A friend brought down 13,000 of these flags from the United States to sell,” said one vendor, Dwey Davila, 24 , who was hawking tiny Vatican flags for the equivalent of about 75 cents apiece, cheaper in bulk. “Everyone in Mexico likes this pope. He’s very popular.”

Among the many groups was a contingent of Polish Catholics who wore fur hats and red robes emblazoned with crosses, while handing out prayer cards and medallions of the Virgin Mary to passersby. They hoisted a huge wooden cross aloft as they marched toward the central square.

Down the street, in front of the storied neoclassical Palace of Bellas Artes, hundreds of students and teachers — many with pope T-shirts and waving red, green and white Mexican flags as well as the Vatican’s yellow-and-white — gathered to stake out positions along the pope’s planned route.

“This is a pope who is very humble, who cares for the poor and working people,” said Jorge Martinez, 28, a teacher who led a group of more than 50 high school students. “All of our students are very enthusiastic to come and see him.”

A few feet away, Martin Macias Hernandez, 53, from the northern state of Zacatecas, wore a traditional Mexican, full-brimmed straw hat and was wrapped in a Mexican flag. He bore a sign urging the pope, “Don’t ever forget beautiful Mexico,” as he ambled through the gathering crowds.

“What attracts me about this pope is his simplicity, despite his exalted position,” said Macias, who said he works as a soccer referee and is also an amateur poet. “He seems like someone who cares about the people.”

“What’s so important is that this pope can speak to us in our language,” said Marisela Rodriguez, who arrived here from Laredo, Texas, on a tour along with her sister, Guadalupe Gonzalez. “He can speak directly to us, he knows our sentiments, he is one of us, a Hispano. That makes a big difference.”

The pair posed for a selfie alongside one of the old city’s venerable institutions, an organ grinder. Wearing tan suits, the grinders still methodically pump out upbeat tunes as colleagues pass caps to collect coins.

“This pope seems like a nice man,” said Adolfo Contreras, 46, an organ grinder downtown  for 8 years — who allowed that he was a bit dismayed that so many people were scurrying  by without dropping  coins in the cap.

“I’m hoping this will be good for business,” Contreras added, as he played on amid the flow of humanity attempting to reach the pope.

After all the excitement and clamor, the day ended on a quieter note for the pope. Francis was granted his wish for a few moments alone at the basilica before the iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which he said has long been a source of personal inspiration.

McDonnell reported from Mexico City and Wilkinson reported from Washington. Special correspondents Laura Tillman, Liliana Nieto del Rio and Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


6:30 p.m.: This story was updated with the pope celebrating Mass.

2:36 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments from the pope and an analytical overview of his trip.

9:41 a.m.: This story was updated with the Pope's address at the National Palace and other details.

This story was originally published at 7:49 a.m.