Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday told Mexican Catholics that renewed faith and a pure heart will help them stand up to "distressing times of human suffering" in a nation stalked by drug violence, crime and uncertainty.
At a vast, sunbaked open-air Mass, with several hundred thousand people arrayed before him, the pope said Mexico faced "times of sorrow as well as hope" and he reiterated a call for the special protection of children.
Of particular significance here, Benedict repeatedly invoked the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and Latin America.
"At this time, when so many families are separated or forced to emigrate, when so many are suffering due to poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values and increased crime, we come to Mary in search of consolation, strength and hope," he said.
Faith in her and the "true God," he said, is the way to "overcome
More than 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels nearly 51/2 years ago. Although many of the dead are traffickers and gunmen, an increasing number are innocent civilians, including children. Youths are also especially vulnerable to the enticements of easy money offered by cartels at a time when educational and work opportunities are spare.
The pope later Sunday met with bishops from around Latin America. On Monday he is scheduled to fly to Santiago, Cuba, in the first papal visit to the communist-ruled island since Pope John Paul II's historic voyage 14 years ago.
A meeting is scheduled between Benedict and Cuban President Raul Castro, and the pope had indicated he was willing to see Fidel Castro as well. Adding to the mix, Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, has traveled to Cuba for another round of cancer treatment. Benedict's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Sunday that he knew of no requests from Chavez for an audience with the pope.
Sunday's Mass in Bicentennial Park at the foot of a hill topped by an imposing Christ the King monument was the main event in Benedict's three-day stay in Mexico. Benedict did a flyover in a military helicopter to observe the monument, which honors the 1920s armed uprising by Catholics against anti-clerical laws, including a ban on open-air Masses.
Although Vatican officials put the crowd size Sunday at half a million, the number of those in attendance seemed closer to 200,000 to 300,000. Still, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were turned away by organizers, even though they had the required tickets and had traveled from afar and waited for hours.
Berta Lomeli, 61, of Guadalajara arrived at the park before dawn, walked nearly four miles, passed through six metal detectors and managed to reach the Mass. "The organization was abysmal," she said. Seeing the pope, however, "was wonderful."
But Jose Huerta and his wife, Janet Lopez, weren't so lucky. "We could not get in," Huerta said, his conked-out 3-year-old daughter on his shoulder. "They told us there was no room. We really wanted to see the pope because we are Catholics and we are faithful."
"Not even with tickets!" said Delfina Barrios, 59, of Mexico City as she hobbled away on a cane. She too was turned away.
For those who did get a seat, including many who began camping out in the park a day earlier, there were enthusiasm, shouts of "Viva el papa!" and roars of approval when Benedict, inside the popemobile, donned a wide-brimmed black charro hat.
The audience also included Calderon and four presidential candidates running in the July 1 election. It was believed to be the first time Calderon has appeared at an event with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate who never accepted his razor-thin loss to Calderon in 2006.
The presidential candidate of Calderon's conservative, pro-Catholic National Action Party trails in the election campaign behind front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and the president has been accused in some quarters of attempting to use the papal visit for political purposes.
Calderon orchestrated a brief meeting of the pope Saturday evening with eight representative victims of drug-war violence or their relatives. They included people from several states all over the country whose relatives have gone missing or been killed in the last two or three years. Benedict has not met with victims of sexual abuse by priests, an omission that has drawn criticism from advocate groups.
Dressed in brilliant purple vestments, the pope spoke during Sunday's two-hour Mass slowly but steadily. Benedict turns 85 next month; when he boarded the flight to Mexico he was using a cane, apparently for the first time in public.
He urged his followers to "resist the temptation of a superficial and routine faith."
"When addressing the deeper dimension of personal and community life, human strategies will not suffice to save us," Benedict said. Instead, the faithful must turn to God, "the One who alone can give life in its fullness."
In welcoming remarks, Msgr. Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago, the archbishop of nearby Leon, delivered an even more pointed critique of the state of affairs in Mexico.
The nation is enduring "a painful situation of fear, impotence and grief," he said. The root causes include poverty, the lack of justice, corruption, impunity and materialism, he said.
Speaking later to the gathered bishops after evening prayers, Benedict urged Latin America's besieged clerics to work with the "conviction that evil does not have the last word in human history."