MEXICO CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday made his way to Ecatepec, a notoriously poor and lawless suburb of the Mexican capital city, where he delivered a classically personal warning against the temptations of “wealth, vanity, and pride.”
Francis opted to visit Mexico City’s outskirts, despite obvious safety concerns, to stand with a community where daily life is often defined by violence, the drug trade, and legal impunity for offenders.
He used the occasion to call for building a Mexico where the dreams of ordinary people are not tied to leaving. Speaking to a crowd estimated at 350,000, with perhaps as many as a million more in surrounding areas, many of whom spent the night braving freezing temperatures, the pope framed his remarks in terms of the season of Lent.
“[There are] three temptations for the Christian, which seek to destroy what we have been called to be,” Francis said. “Three temptations which try to corrode us and tear us down.”
He said that just as Jesus did, Christians today face “three temptations which lock us into a cycle of destruction and sin.”
The first temptation, he said, is “wealth,” which he defined as “seizing hold of goods destined for all, and using them only for ‘my own people’.”
“That wealth tastes of pain, bitterness, and suffering,” Francis said. “This is the ‘bread’ that a corrupt family or society gives its own children.”
The pope then moved on to “vanity,” defining it as the pursuit of prestige based on the exclusion of those who are different.
“[It’s] the futile chasing of those five minutes of fame which do not forgive the ‘reputation’ of others,” he said.
The third temptation, Francis added, is “the worst” and comes from “making firewood from a felled tree.”
“Pride: or rather, putting oneself on a higher level than one truly is on, feeling that one does not share the life of ‘mere mortals’, and yet being one who prays every day: ‘I thank you Lord that you have not made me like those others’ ….”
At one point veering off-script, Francis warned that in some cases, there’s no chance of engaging people who fuel conditions such as those experienced in Ecatepec.
“We have chosen Jesus, not the evil one!” he said, almost yelling. “Let’s get this straight in our heads: You can’t dialogue with the Devil!”
Francis’ blunt language came in a crime-ridden suburb considered more dangerous than traditional murder capitals such as Morelia and Ciudad Juarez, destinations the pope will visit Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Mass took place in an outdoor field that was a sea of people, with thousands waiting more than 20 hours and braving temperatures near 40 degrees Fahrenheit to participate in the largest event of Francis’ Feb. 12-17 Mexico trip.
Observers believe the pontiff chose Ecatepec, with a murder rate that triples the national one, because it’s a strategic point for drug cartels that thrive amid poverty and unemployment.
In effect, he left the elites of Mexico City for the “other” Mexico, the one where people are crowded in slums and have had to learn to live with crimes such as carjacking, “femicide,” kidnapping, extortion, killings, and attempted lynching by groups of self-protection.
Nationwide, since late 2006 more than 100,000 Mexicans have been killed and 27,000 have disappeared in gangland violence.
Since he arrived in Mexico, Francis has denounced corruption, both in politics and in the Church. He has asked the country to put its trust in Our Lady of Guadalupe, and prayed for “the mothers, fathers, grandparents who have seen their children leaving, becoming lost, or even being taken by criminals.”
Never one to choose comfortable destinations, the next three days of Francis’ visit will be radically different from the first two, which included a visit to the presidential palace and a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
That Mass for the “brown-skinned virgin” was a highly anticipated moment for the pontiff, who has said time and time again she was the reason for his visit to Mexico.
However, the service resembled those he presides over in Rome in terms of pomp and circumstance. The exact opposite is expected for the Mass he’ll celebrate Monday in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, where part of the liturgy will be in indigenous languages.
On Sunday, Francis arrived in Ecatepec after a short helicopter ride and a 5.5-mile journey in the popemobile. Along the way, there were almost two miles of colorful mats with Aztec designs executed in white sand and sawdust.
His altar on Sunday, simple in design, was also surrounded by colorful pictograms with Aztec symbols. They were created by one of the indigenous communities of Ecatepec, and were meant as a sign of respect, love, and thankfulness to the pope.
Francis had more than pious warnings for the thousands gathered in the field of Ecatepec’s Study Center. After the Mass, he delivered his weekly Angelus prayer, which he normally does from a balcony in the Vatican that overlooks St. Peter’s Square.
“A Christian cannot but show solidarity … to solve the situation of those who have not yet received the bread of culture or the opportunity of an honorable job,” Francis said. “He cannot remain insensitive while the new generations have not found the way to bring into reality their legitimate aspirations.”
He was quoting a radio message from his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, on the 75th anniversary of the crowning of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Argentine pontiff then urged those who had attended the Mass to be on the front lines of social change, promoting initiatives which could help Mexico become a land of opportunities.
“[A land] where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream,” he said. “No need to be exploited in order to work, no need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”
Later on Sunday Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the Pediatric Hospital Federico Gomez, where he’ll spend time with sick children in the oncology ward.