MORELIA, Michoacán — Pope Francis says he understands the temptation of drug cartels on Mexican youth, but believes it’s no match for faith in Jesus Christ.
“You’ve asked me for a word of hope, the one I have to tell you, the one at the base of everything, is called Jesus Christ. When everything seems heavy, when it seems the world is against us, embrace your cross, embrace Jesus,” Francis told a crowd of tens of thousands of mostly young Mexicans gathered in a soccer stadium in the southern city of Morelia on Tuesday afternoon.
“Jesus, who gives us hope, would never invite us to be sicarios (hitmen). He calls us disciples. He calls us friends. He would never doom us to fail; everything about him is an invitation to life.”- Pope Francis
The pontiff’s words came in response to questions and concerns posed by four young Mexicans who took the stage to address the pope about the drug war, unemployment and other issues affecting youth.
“Many families have only been able to mourn the loss of their children, because impunity has given wings to those who kidnap, deceive and kill,” said Alberto, a young man from Morelia who addressed the pope.
“They tell us we are the hope for a better world. But who gives us hope?” asked a young woman who also took the stage.
The pope responded by urging the youth to avoid the false promises of easy money associated with drug cartels, and instead embrace Jesus, family and community.
“It’s true that this path perhaps will not give you the latest car, you won’t have your pockets filled with money, but you’ll have something nobody will ever be able to take away from you,” the pontiff continued; “the experience of feeling loved, hugged, accompanied.”
Francis stressed that the youth are the real “wealth of Mexico,” and said that’s something they need to remember always, especially when the going gets tough.
“I understand many times it’s difficult to feel this wealth when we are constantly exposed to the loss of friends or family members at the hands of drug trafficking, drugs, and criminal organizations that instill fear,” the pope said.
The pope’s words seemed to resonate loudly in Morelia, a city that has seen the comings and goings of revolutionary priests who have challenged the church and society.
It was in Morelia where famous Spanish priest Vasco de Quiroga made a name for himself fighting for education and the rights of indigenous natives during Mexico’s early colonial period. It was also here where the country’s rebel priests and founding fathers, Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos, studied the enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution.
Morelos, a priest-turned-military-general, would later help pen Mexico’s first constitution. And Hidalgo, in 1810, rang his church’s bells urging parishioners to unite against Spanish rule, while transforming the country’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe into a symbol of the Mexican Independence movement.
Together, these founding fathers blended Catholicism and Mexican nationalism to forge a new nation. And it’s that syncretism, faith and country, that Pope Francis appealed to on Tuesday in an effort to make the Church seem more relevant in the lives of Mexicans, especially the youth.
youth under fire
Francis centered much of his message Tuesday on narco-violence, one of the biggest problems young Michoacanos currently face.
In 2008, Morelia became one of the first Mexican cities to suffer a narco-terrorist attack when cartel members threw grenades into the main square during the annual Mexican Independence Day celebrations, killing eight people and injuring more than 100. The state of Michoacán is also home to the country’s autodefensas, or vigilante movement, which rose up to fight the ruthless Knights Templar Cartel.
Marginalized and without many job prospects, young people in Michoacán have become easy prey for criminal groups that lure them into the drug trade.
“Those who have very little to live for are offered easy money by the cartels,” Morelia Cardinal Alberto Suarez told Fusion. “Many [young people] have to flee or become criminals.”
Suarez claims authorities, if not complicit in criminal activity, certainly seem passive about taking on organized crime.
Still, Suarez says the media and foreign governments have exaggerated the state’s drug war problems. “The pope has come to bless us, not to stigmatize us,” he said.
The priest acknowledges the Catholic Church hasn’t done enough to help the country’s youth. “We must try and approach teenagers and children to show them the beauty of a life of honesty and sacrifice,” he said. “There’s a lot less [Church] participation from new generations. We priests haven’t been able to express ourselves in ways that attract them.”
There are those in the Church who are working hard to change the situation. In the so-called Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán and Guerrero, many priests have been threatened and killed for speaking out against organized crime.
There are also those who are changing the way they preach in an effort to appeal to a younger demographic.
In a church just a few blocks away from Morelia’s cathedral, Father Manuel Belman focuses on the future in his weekly sermons. In a friendly and warm voice, Belman preaches in language that’s easy to understand for the youngest people in attendance.
“The pope is old, but he isn’t afraid of anything— [he’s not afraid that] his blood pressure might go up, or that he might get diarrhea from eating outside the Vatican,” he says at a mass attended by snickering children.
“Let yourselves be guided like a pencil in the hands of God,” he tells them. “Let yourselves be sharpened, accept suffering because that will allow you to mature. Inside the graphite lies your soul. Allow God to use the eraser at the other end, so that he can wipe out your sins.”
Following mass, Belman told Fusion he agrees with Cardinal Suarez in that the Church isn’t doing enough to appeal to young people.
“Priests aren’t preparing their homilies, we don’t talk about how the gospel relates to society, or the country’s problems, we live alienated from what’s happening in the world,” Belman says. “There are many priests who still don’t know how to use a computer, and we just keep getting older and older.”
The priest explains that the Church has also repelled many young people by failing to adapt to the times and “holding on to its traditionalism.”
“Young people got bored of coming to Church with their parents,” he said. “They got tired of hearing the same old story…There was no music, no language they could relate to, mass had nothing to do with life.”
Pope Francis seems to understand those shortcomings.
“The biggest threat to hope is to feel that nobody cares about you or that you’re being put aside,” he told Mexico’s youth on Tuesday.
Transforming Francis’s message into actions is the challenge ahead for the local church.