SILAO, Mexico — The journey from San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city located in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, takes more than 20 hours by bus.

For the small group of indigenous Mexicans who accompanied Auxiliary Bishop Enrique Díaz Diáz to the papal Mass in Silao, the bus ride was the easy part; many of them had to walk for hours to get from their distant rural communities to the San Cristóbal de las Casas bus station.

The participation of this flock, moved by a deep desire to see Pope Benedict XVI firsthand, was just one thread in the rich tapestry of people who converged March 25 on Bicentennial Park in the industrial city of Silao, about 20 miles from León.

As the Holy Father flew over the park in a military Superpuma helicopter, his arrival was eagerly watched by 640,000 people, among them the Mexican political elite — most notably President Felipe Calderón and the four candidates for Mexico’s upcoming presidential election.

Several hundred bishops, the presidents of the 22 bishops’ conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, and 3,000 priests had gathered beforehand in the sacristy, prepared to concelebrate the Mass with the Pope.

Many in the crowd had arrived the night before and camped out on the grounds. Others trekked in during the day, walking about two miles from the drop-off point on the highway to the park grounds, cheering and waving flags in the morning sun.

Sixty large television monitors had been set up in the park so that the attendees could follow the Mass, which was celebrated in Latin with the musical accompaniment of a 60-person orchestra and a 200-person choir.

As Pope Benedict exited the helicopter and headed toward the sacristy in the popemobile, the crowd was thrilled to see that he wore a black-and-white sombrero as a gesture of closeness and solidarity, and the now-familiar cheer “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres mexicano!” (Benedict, brother, now you are Mexican!) resounded across the park.

Human Strategies Are Not Enough

In his welcoming address to the Holy Father, León’s Archbishop José Martín Rábago spoke of the dramatic situation Mexico has faced in recent years and the people’s deep need for encouragement, hope and renewed strength.

“In these last few years, we have lived through events of violence and death that have caused an awful sensation of fear, powerlessness and grief,” said Archbishop Martín, citing poverty, the lack of opportunities, corruption and the deficient administration of justice as contributing causes.

It was against this backdrop that the Holy Father delivered his homily.

Comparing Mexico to ancient Israel in its times of duress, the Pope emphasized the power of God to overcome “an impossible, dark situation with no future” by transforming man “from within, from the heart.”

Alone, relying on merely political and economic measures, it will be impossible for Mexico to overcome its present challenges, he said.

“When it is a matter of personal and community life in its deepest dimension, human strategies are not enough to save us. We must also turn to the only One who can give life in its fullness, for he himself is the essence and author of life,” said the Holy Father.

The Pope urged the Mexican people to look deeper and to see the glory of Jesus not in the applause of the multitudes, but in his sacrifice on the cross.

“His Kingdom does not consist in the power of his armies to subject others by force or violence,” he said. “It is based on a greater power that wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought to the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness.”

The Holy Father went on to emphasize the need to pray for a pure heart where Christ “can live as prince of peace, thanks to the power of God, which is the power of the good, the power of love.”

In this way, he said, Mexicans will be able to transform society, spreading the peace within them to others.

A Mother’s Help

Following the Mass, Pope Benedict also prayed the Angelus with the faithful, delivering a short address.

In a land where it is not unheard of for people — including hardened drug traffickers —  to reject the Church and Christ while still venerating Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Holy Father reminded his listeners that “true devotion to Mary always brings us to Jesus,” and that “loving her means committing ourselves to listen to her Son.”

The Holy Father also recalled the painful reality of family division due to migration, as well as sufferings caused by poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values or criminality. In these situations, he said, we must turn to Mary for consolation, strength and hope.

Finally, he entrusted the New Evangelization in the continental mission to the care of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “star of the first and new evangelization.”

“I beg her now that her presence in this beloved nation will continue calling people to the respect, defense and promotion of human life and the fostering of fraternity, avoiding useless vengeance and uprooting the hatred that divides,” he said.

Echoes From the Past

Such a message — of peace in the midst of dark times — is significant in light of where the Mass took place: at the foot of the Cerro del Cubilete, in the shadow of a 72-foot monument to Christ the King.

The monument, whose design is based on the enormous statue of Christ the King in Brazil, serves as a visual reminder that religious liberty in Mexico was purchased with blood and prayer.

During the Cristero War, 1926-1929, when the Catholic faithful resisted an anti-clerical government that tried to stamp out the practice of the faith, tens of thousands lost their lives in guerilla-style warfare. Guanajuato, in particular, was a theater of war.

Silao’s soil was witness to the blood of martyrs, where the free expression of religious faith was lived so radiantly. Thus, it was a significant setting for the Mass.

Prior to the Mass, the Holy Father’s helicopter had provided him with an overview of the monument, a sight which he said John Paul II had “ardently desired” to see.

“He will surely rejoice today from heaven that the Lord has granted me the grace to be able to be here now with you,” he said during his homily.

Now We Know Our Pope

The response of the faithful after this Mass was an even greater outpouring of love and welcome, as the Mexican people have come to discover Pope Benedict XVI for themselves, seeing that he is not a “poor copy” of John Paul II, but an authentic apostle who knows how to be close to his worldwide flock.

“I felt so much emotion in the homily because of the love and charism” of Pope Benedict, said Alicia de Lizarraga, who traveled from the northern city of Monterrey to see him.

“I felt the presence of John Paul II in him, and now I love him very much,” she said, noting that her feelings were echoed in the reactions of those around her during the papal Mass.

“I felt the euphoria of so many people from all over the world who wanted to meet Pope Benedict,” she said. “It was impressive to see so many of us from all over, all united in prayer, especially the many mothers praying that our country will come out of all its difficulties.”

For Edmundo Nava, a young man from Mexico City, it was “an experience I needed personally: a spiritual, personal experience of coming back to my faith, of returning to a love for the Pope and the Church.”

Referring to his fellow Mexicans, Nava said, “The Mexican faithful needed [this visit] to come to terms with Pope Benedict. Beyond the personality of the Pope, they were able to see him with faith.”

In a press conference today, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi agreed, saying, “With this trip, I think that certain distance between the shared sensibility of the Mexican people and the concrete person of Benedict was overcome because the personal meeting had its effect, and Mexicans were able to see concretely the Pope in their land, amongst them.”

According to Vatican data, more than 700,000 people lined the streets of León during the days of the Pope’s visit, while the figure jumped to a million on his trip to Guanajuato.

Father Lombardi said, “The Pope was able to give his message and be visible to Mexicans. The famous words “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres mexicano” are now true.”

Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo filed this story from Silao, Mexico.


Ceremony of Light Encourages Unity

The Pope prayed vespers at 6pm local time in the splendid cathedral-basilica of Our Lady of Light, located in the historic center of the city of León.

The cathedral, whose first stones were laid in the 17th century, was the setting for a vespers service composed of prayers, Psalms and other Scripture readings, all sung in Latin, under the light of crystal chandeliers and artfully arranged candles.

The Holy Father was accompanied inside the cathedral by 130 bishops from all over Latin America, as well as priests and laypeople, while about 1,000 more followed the ceremony on television monitors from the small square outside.

In his opening words, León Archbishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábago spoke of the progress that has been made in the New Evangelization and assured the Holy Father that good fruits are being harvested from the efforts of Latin America’s bishops, priests and laypeople.

The Holy Father’s homily, delivered about midway through vespers, emphasized the importance of unity and communion in the shared mission of bishops, priests and laypeople.

Acknowledging the challenges of working in difficult social and cultural circumstances, the Holy Father reassured them, “You are not alone amid your trials or in your successes in the work of evangelization. All of us are one in sufferings and in consolation.”

He repeated this encouragement to unity in the context of the ongoing continental mission launched from Aparecida, Brazil, whose goal is to spur on the New Evangelization in the entire Latin American continent.

Unity is crucial for the mission, he said, as he urged bishops to “show great concern for your seminarians” and to “remain close to your priests,” even when they require “paternal admonition in response to improper attitudes.”

The different forms of consecrated life are to be “gratefully esteemed and responsibly encouraged,” while the laypeople working in catechesis, liturgical service and charitable activity need “greater attention” and faith formation, the Pope said.

“It is not right for [the laypeople] to feel treated like second-class citizens in the Church, despite the committed work which they carry out in accordance with their proper vocation and the great sacrifice which this dedication at times demands of them.”

In all, he said, the spirit of communion must reign “among priests, religious and the lay faithful,” and “sterile divisions, criticisms and unhealthy mistrust are [to be] avoided.”

Following the celebration of vespers, the Holy Father remotely lighted the immense bronze statue of Christ the King, located in the nearby city of Silao, near the site of the papal Mass celebrated earlier today.

The renovation of the statue had been one of the elements of preparation for the Holy Father’s visit, and tonight marked the first time it had ever been illuminated.

When the Pope remotely activated the lighting device, the statue was lit up with three vertical rays of light, while a multicolored fireworks display marked the occasion.

— Trish Bailey de Arceo