GUANAJUATO, Mexico — Confetti fell like snow over Guanajuato’s picturesque streets, filled to the brim with cheering crowds estimated at 10,000 people — including a special contingent of children — as Pope Benedict XVI appeared in his popemobile on his way to the Plaza de la Paz (Peace Square). On the agenda was a meeting with President Felipe Calderón and his family, a special address specifically for children, and the reception of the keys to the cities of Guanajuato and León.
Children, from newborn to 14 years, make up just under 30% of the country’s population as a silent constituency that feels the impact of insecurity, poverty and violence perhaps more than anyone else. For the Pope, they are not a forgotten group, but an important part of Mexico’s current story and its future.
“You have a very important place in the Pope’s heart,” he said in his brief address, given from a balcony overlooking Peace Square. “And in these moments, I would like all of Mexico’s children to know it, especially those who bear the weight of suffering, abandonment, violence or hunger.”
Once again, the Holy Father encouraged the Mexican people — especially its littlest citizens — to be hope-filled protagonists in changing the reality that surrounds them.
“God knows us, and he loves us. If we let the love of Christ change our heart, then we can change the world,” he said, and each person can become “a sower and messenger of peace.”
In simple terms, he urged the children to be “instruments of the good, heralds of peace, bearers of joy, servants of unity” and to take Jesus as their “best friend,” knowing that he will help them through difficult times.
“I have come so that you feel my affection,” he said, as the crowd erupted in cheers. “Each one of you is a gift of God for Mexico and the world.”
His words were also directed at the adults who are shaping today’s world, as he said, “I wish to [invite] everyone to protect and care for the children, so that their smile may never go out, so that they may live in peace and look to the future with confidence.”
“My little friends, you are not alone,” he said as dusk fell over the square and the basilica glowed orange in the light of the setting sun.
“You have the help of Christ and his Church to live a Christian lifestyle,” he said, reminding them that prayer, sacramental life, and groups of prayer and apostolate will help them find the way to “love and serve.”
The Keys to a City’s Heart
Just prior to this short address, the Holy Father had met privately with Calderón’s family at the House of Conde Rul, which is flanked by the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato on one side and the state congress building on the other.
The meeting was significant both for its timing and its location. The historic city of Guanajuato is the capital of the state of Guanajuato, located about 40 minutes from the larger and more business-oriented city of León. Known as the “cradle of the independence” of Mexico, the state of Guanajuato played a crucial role in the nation’s drawn-out battle for independence from Spain, which is said to have begun on Sept. 16, 1810, although it took 10 years of bloody battles for that independence to become a reality.
In fact, it was a less-than-exemplary Catholic priest — Father Miguel Hidalgo — who led the country’s battle for independence, inaugurating the now traditional “grito,” or cry of independence, that is repeated every Sept. 16 at night in town squares across the country.
The recently concluded bicentennial of the country’s independence was one of the motives that Pope Benedict had cited for visiting Mexico at this time, and for visiting the state of Guanajuato in particular.
During the half hour that the Holy Father met with Calderón and his family, the people outside cheered and sang along, while the Esperanza Azteca Orchestra played rousing anthems and traditional songs particular to the state.
Just prior, in his way into the city of Guanajuato, the Holy Father had made a stop in the Glorieta de la Santa Fe, where the mayor of the city, Edgar Castro Cerrillo, gave him the keys to the city, while the governor of the state, Juan Manuel Oliva Ramírez, looked on as a witness. The key, made of nickel and engraved with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on one side and the Vatican coat of arms on the other, is a symbolic gesture of welcome and esteem for a distinguished visitor.
The Holy Father also received the keys to the city of León in a brief ceremony on his way back from Guanajuato, as the mayor of León, Ricardo Sheffield delivered a bronze key bearing the image of St. Sebastian, the city’s patron saint.
“The giving of the keys to the city is a gesture of welcome,” said Father Guillermo Chávez, a priest who works in media relations for the Mexican Bishops’ Conference. “The key opens the city’s heart.”
And these two cities’ hearts have opened wide to the Pope, surprising those who were anticipating a more muted reaction from the Mexican faithful. At least here, the people have come out in droves to see the Holy Father, sometimes waiting as long as 12 hours just for a brief glimpse.
Initial estimates for today’s Mass in Bicentennnial Park set the number of expected attendees at a modest 300,000, but people have been pouring in all day long — some from distant cities — to find a spot. The organizing committee has estimated that an additional 200,000 people may attend without tickets, overflowing the park boundaries.
That estimate is still too modest, says Father Chávez, who said that about 650,000 to 700,000 are expected to arrive, many at the last minute, and often with personal sacrifice.
“Our people do the impossible to be there, even if they don’t have a ticket,” he said. “When there is a feeling, an overflowing heart, the people respond. They show it spontaneously by singing, jumping, even running after the popemobile. Mexicans are festive, joyful. They know how to express their affection for the Pope.”
“Pope Benedict is seeing the flame that John Paul II ignited,” he said. “This visit is fanning that flame into new life, just as St. Paul said, ‘Go and strengthen my brethren in the faith.’”
“And the Pope’s message comes at an opportune time, because Mexico is living through difficult moments with the violence, the drug trafficking ... but their love is stronger, their affection is stronger, and the Mexican people will have the strength to rise up.”
Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo filed this story from Guanajuato, Mexico.