Pope turns eye to Mexico’s drug heartland
Morelia, Mexico — Pope Francis urged Mexican priests Tuesday not to resign themselves to a society dominated by drug-fueled violence and corruption, but to get out of their comfortable lives and fight the injustices tormenting their flock.
Francis issued the appeal during a Mass for Mexico’s clergy in the capital of the state of Michoacan, a hotbed of the country’s drug trade. It was the first event of a daylong visit to Morelia that includes a meeting with young people, a fixture of papal trips that often produces some of the most memorable and spontaneous moments.
Francis’ visit to Morelia, though, is also a symbolic vote of confidence for the city’s archbishop, Alberto Suarez Inda. Like Francis, Suarez Inda has called for Mexican bishops to be closer to their people and not act like bureaucrats or princes. Last year Francis made him a cardinal — an unambiguous sign that Francis wants “peripheral” pastors like him at the helm of the church hierarchy.
In his homily, Francis told the priests and nuns to not become resigned to the problems around them or give in to paralysis, which he called the devil’s “favorite weapon.”
“What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again when faced with this reality which seems to have become a permanent system?” Francis asked.
“I think we can sum it up on one word: resignation.”
Rather than give up, Francis urged the clerics to look to the model of Vasco de Quiroga, a 16th-century Spanish bishop who came to New Spain and founded utopian-style indigenous communities where agriculture and handicrafts were taught.
A Franciscan, he was affectionately known by many indigenous as “Tata Vasco,” or “Father Vasco” in the Purepecha language.
Francis said that when Vasco de Quiroga saw Indians being “sold, humiliated and homeless in marketplaces” due to colonial exploitation, he did not resign himself to inaction but rather was inspired to fight injustice.
Since beginning his Mexico trip Friday night, Francis has repeatedly taken to task the Mexican church leadership, many of whom have cozy ties with Mexico’s political and financial elite and are loath to speak out on behalf of the poor and victims of today’s social injustices.
On Saturday in Mexico City, he scolded what he called gossiping, career-minded and aloof clerics, and admonished them to stand by their flock and offer “prophetic courage” in facing down the drug trade. In an inscription in a seminary guestbook, he urged future priests to be pastors of God and not “clerics of the state.”
Suarez Inda clearly backs Francis’ program, echoing the pope’s admonition that “pastors should not be bureaucrats and we bishops should not have the mentality or attitude of princes.”
In 2013, at what was perhaps the height of the violence in Michoacan, Suarez Inda led eight other bishops in signing an unusually outspoken letter accusing government authorities of “complicity, forced or willing,” with criminal gangs. It urged priests to “do whatever is in your power” to help people in an atmosphere of kidnappings, killings and extortion and to “carry out concrete actions in favor of peace and reconciliation.”
He has called for Mexico’s church leaders to put aside their comfortable lives and become pastors with the “smell of their sheep.” It’s a famous phrase of the pope’s about the need for bishops to accompany their flock closely through life’s ups and downs.
The pope “shakes up the conscience of priests in order that we not be mediocre, installed priests who simply seek social promotion, but rather that we truly live our calling to serve the people with great generosity,” Suarez Inda told the Mexican newspaper El Universal last month.
Suarez Inda was also part of a group of clergy from Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state who prepared a report on Mexico’s drug violence last year that he said left Francis “very shocked and impressed.”
Much of Michoacan is part of a region called Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Lands, known for both its blistering temperatures and brutal tactics by gangsters eager to control lucrative drug-production territory and smuggling routes.
By 2013, the pseudo-religious, evangelical-inspired Knights Templar cartel was widely kidnapping and extorting money and dominating the state’s economic and political scene so much that local farmers took up arms against them. But the uprising by the vigilante-style “self-defense” forces brought little peace to the state, with the groups fighting among themselves even as new criminal gangs sprang up or tried to muscle their way into Michoacan, a big source of methamphetamine production.
“I’m excited about the pope’s visit, but the reality is that people are afraid. Right now there is a festive atmosphere and a lot of police, but in the day-to-day it’s not that calm. Crime has risen,” said Yulisa Duran, an 18-year-old nursing student sitting with her boyfriend in Morelia’s main square.
“I lived in a tiny town that was very gentle, and then the (cartel) came in,” Duran added.
On Monday, Francis denounced centuries-old exploitation and exclusion of Mexico’s indigenous people in the southern state of Chiapas and said the world can learn from their traditions.
Francis wraps up his five-day visit on Wednesday by traveling to Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, for a cross-border Mass expected to focus heavily on the plight of migrants.