Pope Benedict XVI good-naturedly donned a sombrero that someone passed to him as he rode in his Popemobile Sunday. The Pontiff celebrated Mass before a crowd of 350,000 people.
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SILAO, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI donned a sombrero Sunday and stayed away from talking about politics in his first open-air Mass in Latin America, urging Roman Catholics in Mexico to seek a pure heart and avoid “superficial and routine temptation.”
A crowd estimated at 350,000 people gathered for the Mass in central Mexico’s Guanajuato state.
On the third day of a six-day trip that also will take him to Cuba, the Pontiff only tangentially touched on the violence roiling Mexico, saying he was aware of the “moments of both pain and hope” coursing through the region’s people.
Mustering strength limited by his age but walking without a cane, the 84-year-old Benedict sought to uplift Mexicans, saying the power of Christ is based on the ability to reach out to people’s hearts, not in the power of armies “to make others submit to force or violence.”
Enthusiastic crowds seemed to melt the Pontiff’s staid demeanor, leading to several unscripted and lighthearted moments.
One occurred early Sunday as the Pontiff’s white Popemobile approached the soaring outdoor altar. Someone handed a black sombrero, of the type used by mariachis, through a window to the Pope. He good-naturedly put it on.
A day earlier, the Pontiff briefly took an infant passed to him for a blessing through the window of his vehicle and chuckled lightly when excited shrieks from youths interrupted his message from a colonial balcony in the city of Guanajuato.
Mexico remains the most Catholic country in the world after Brazil.
In the 2010 census, 83 percent of Mexicans identified themselves as Catholic.
Shouts of “Long live the Pope!” and “Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican!” rang out as the Mass — the highlight of the visit to Mexico — ended and throngs streamed from Bicentennial Park between the cities of Leon and Guanajuato.
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.
Pilgrims sing and cheer as they wait near the site in central Mexico where the Pope celebrated an open-air Mass. During his homily Sunday he asked Christians to pray for an end to the violence in Mexico brought on by drug cartels.
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“We pray for him to help us, that there be no more violence in the country,” said Lorena Diaz, 50, who owns a jeans factory in Leon. “We pray that he gives us peace.”
Before the ceremony, the vast field was filled with noise, as people took pictures with cell phones and passed around food. But 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.
The reference to Mary is particularly important for Mexicans, who revere the Virgin of Guadalupe as their patron saint.
“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.”
Pope Benedict’s reference to immigration resonated in Guanajuato, which is one of the top three Mexican states sending migrant workers north.
“People leave for the good of their families,” said Jose Porfirio Garcia Martinez, 56, an indigenous farm worker who came to the Mass with 35 others from Puebla, another area that has many migrants in the United States.
“For us it’s difficult, not seeing them for 10 years, communicating by phone and by Internet.”
Pope Benedict had wanted to come to Guanajuato because it was one of the parts of Mexico that Pope John Paul II had never visited during his five trips as pope.
In addition, Benedict wanted to see and bless the Christ the King statue.
With its outstretched arms, the 72-foot 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 Msgr. Victor Rene Rodriguez, secretary general of the Mexican bishops conference.
The Pope leaves for Cuba at mid-morning Monday, marking only the second time the island’s communist leaders have agreed to a visit by a pope.
Pope John Paul II spent four days on the island in 1998.