SILAO, Mexico (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI urged Mexicans to wield their faith against poverty and drug violence, telling hundreds of thousands of worshippers in an open-air Mass on Sunday that they would find hope if they purify their hearts.
Benedict delivered his message in the shadow of the Christ the King monument, one of the most important symbols of Mexican Christianity, which recalls the 1920s Roman Catholic uprising against the anti-clerical laws that forbade public worship services such as the one Benedict celebrated.
The pope flew over the monument in a Mexican military Superpuma helicopter en route to the Mass at Bicentennial Park, where he rode in the popemobile through an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 350,000.
Often seen as austere and reserved, Benedict charmed a country that adored his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, by donning a broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero as he was driven to the altar at the sun-drenched park.
"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a beloved grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon.
Before the ceremony, the vast field was filled with noise, as people took pictures with their cell phones and passed around food.
As the Mass started, all fell silent, some dropping to their knees in the dirt and gazing at the altar or giant video screens.
In his homily, Benedict encouraged Mexicans to purify their hearts to confront the sufferings, difficulties and evils of daily life. It has been a common theme in his first visit to Mexico as pope: On Saturday he urged the young to be messengers of peace in a country that has witnessed the deaths of more than 47,000 people in a drug war that has escalated during a government offensive against cartels.
"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," Benedict said in a prayer at the end of Mass.
"She is the mother of the true God, who invites us to stay with faith and charity beneath her mantle, so as to overcome in this way all evil and to establish a more just and fraternal society."
The reference to Mary is particularly important for Mexicans, who revere the Virgin of Guadalupe as their patron saint. His reference to immigration resonated in Guanajuato, which is among the Mexican states sending the most migrant workers north.
Many said the pope showed a deep understanding of the challenges Mexico faces. While they said things may not change as a result, at least the pontiff gave them hope.
"It was really gratifying," industrial engineer Juan Jose Ruiz Moreno, 39, said after the Mass. "In his words there was a great understanding of us, the Mexican people."
Some in the crowd wore white tunics with images of Benedict, the monument and Mexico's beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, and reading: "The entire church asks for peace in Mexico."
"People leave for the good of their families," said Jose Porfirio Garcia Martinez, 56, an indigenous farmworker who came to the mass with 35 others from Puebla. "For us it's difficult, not seeing them for 10 years, communicating by phone and by Internet."
The Vatican said Benedict wanted to come to Guanajuato to see and bless the Christ the King statue, something that John Paul II had wanted, but was never able to do.
With its outstretched arms, the 72-foot (22-meter) bronze monument of Christ "expresses an identity of the Mexican people that contains a whole history in relation to the testimony of faith and those who fought for religious freedom at the time," said Monsignor Victor Rene Rodriguez, secretary general of the Mexican bishops conference.
Before the Mass, the pope presented Mexico with a gift of a mosaic of Jesus Christ that will be placed at the monument.
After nightfall Sunday, the pope will remotely inaugurate its new lighting system.
Guanajuato state was the site of some of the key battles of the Cristero War, so-called because its protagonists said they were fighting for Christ the King. Historians say about 90,000 people died before peace was restored. The region remains Mexico's most conservatively Catholic.
With roads closed, pilgrims walked for miles to the Mass with plastic lawn chairs, water and backpacks. Old women walked with canes. Some Mass-goers wrapped themselves in blankets or beach towel-sized Vatican flags, trekking past vendors selling sun hats, flags, potato chips and bottles of juice.
Hundreds of young priests in white and black cassocks, waiting to pass through the metal detectors, shouted "Christ Lives!" and "Long Live Christ the King!" — the battle cry of the Cristeros.
The 84-year-old pope will be going to Cuba on Monday.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Silao and Nicole Winfield reported in Leon. AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Guanajuato and E. Eduardo Castillo in Leon contributed to this report.
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