León, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI’s flight touched down at the León airport this afternoon, in the midst of nearly 90-degree heat and relentless sun, which the 3,500 guests had endured for hours prior to his arrival.
But the heat did not stop the crowd from erupting into enthusiastic cheers as the Holy Father came into view.
After welcoming words by the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, the Holy Father addressed the crowd and the nation, saying that “the fervor of the Mexican people is famous” and that he had been wanting to make this trip “for a long time.”
“I come as a pilgrim of faith, hope and charity,” he said, with the desire to “strengthen and encourage” the Mexican faithful to revitalize their faith by listening to the word of God, receiving the sacraments and seeking “coherence of life.”
Earlier on, during the flight, the Pope had told journalists traveling with him that one of his main purposes in visiting Mexico was to “strengthen” the people “in their commitment to the good and their battle against evil.”
In Mexico, that evil takes concrete form in the drug war that has claimed 50,000-plus lives in the past five years. During the interview on board the plane, Pope Benedict referred to the “idolatry of money that enslaves men” and the “false promises, lies, deception” that keep people from the good.
“Above all, we have to proclaim God,” he said, “God who is our judge and who loves us. But he loves us to call us to the good and to the truth against evil.”
In this battle to make truth and goodness present, “the Church has the great responsibility of educating consciences, educating in moral responsibility and unmasking evil,” he said.
Although the majority (80%) of the Mexican people claim Catholicism as their religion, there is often a disconnect between faith and practice, especially when it comes to bridging the private and public spheres. Mexico itself is a divided country, at once aggressively secular and deeply Catholic. These divisions, said the Pope, must be overcome if Mexico is to progress toward a brighter future.
In reference to this division, the Holy Father referred to “a certain schizophrenia between individual and public morality: Individually, they are Catholic believers, but in their public life they follow other paths that do not respond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for establishing a just society.”
In response to this challenge, the Pontiff indicated the need for a deeper education that spans not only individual morality, but also public morality, as in the social doctrine of the Church.
’Benedict, You Are Mexican’
Yet there is another dimension to the social changes that the Holy Father is inviting Mexicans to pursue. Change begins within, in the heart of the believer, and fomenting this interior transformation is the responsibility of the Church and of every believer.
“This country, this continent, is called to live hope in God as a profound conviction, turning it into an attitude of the heart and a concrete commitment to walk together to a better world,” the Pope said in his address at the León airport.
For Father Angel Luis Lorente Gutierrez, a priest who works in a think tank for cultural change in the Mexican Bishops Conference’s Communications Commission, this invitation to an integral transformation is the nucleus of the Pope’s message to Mexico.
“He is calling us to an integral renewal, not just gestures or actions to fight drugs or social inequality, but a change of heart through the faith, which then leads to works of charity, which in turn lead to cultural change. It is a hope that takes form in a change of life, in becoming more united to the person of Jesus,” said Father Lorente.
When asked if the Mexican people will be as open to Pope Benedict as they were to his predecessor, Father Lorente said he has no doubt that the message will penetrate hearts powerfully and effectively.
“The media pick up on external sensationalism,” he said, “but the Mexican people have a sensibility of heart, a simplicity and humility that will enable them to receive a message that is interior and spiritual.”
Father Lorente also observed that while Blessed John Paul II was undeniably a magnetic, charismatic presence, Pope Benedict is an unparalleled communicator. Through his attitude of a humble servant, the message shines out even more clearly, and “Jesus acts even more powerfully,” he said.
While many Mexicans have said that the figure of Pope Benedict XVI does not galvanize them like John Paul II did, the youth at the airport gave witness that the John Paul II generation is alive and well.
“This is the youth of the Pope!” they shouted, cheering, “Benedict, brother, now you are Mexican!” (“ Benedicto, hermano, ya eres mexicano!].”
Meanwhile, from the early morning onward, the streets of the popemobile’s trajectory had steadily filled up with youth and adults in white t-shirts who cheered, sang and waved yellow-and-white flags as motorists drove by honking their horns in solidarity. The ebullient atmosphere lasted throughout the day, reaching fever pitch as the motorcade and then the popemobile came into view in the late afternoon.
As the popemobile disappeared into the distance and yellow-and-white balloons floated up into the air, the people came away smiling with elation, excited to have had the chance to see the Pope in their own hometown.
“It is an unprecedented event in this city,” said Gloria Flores, a native of León. “Maybe we will never again have the chance to see the Pope here, in León.”
For José Navarro, another Leonese, the experience was imbued with faith.
“It’s exciting and deeply moving to see the Pope, knowing that he is the representative of Christ,” he said. “In these times, he is a light on our path.”
Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo filed this story from León, Guanajuato, Mexico.