By Nicole Winfield Associated Press
LEON, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI landed in Mexico on Friday to throngs of faithful who gathered at the tarmac and lined more than 20 miles of his route into the city shouting the ultimate welcome: “Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican.”
Many thought such a warm reception, complete with folkloric dance and mariachis, would not greet a pope some consider distant and academic. But the world’s largest Roman Catholic, Spanish-speaking country showed Benedict the affection they had for his predecessor, John Paul II, who was dubbed “Mexico’s pope” after making five trips to the country.
“This is a proud country of hospitality, and nobody feels like a stranger in your land,” the pope said upon landing to wild cheers. “I knew that, now I see it and now I feel it in my heart.”
After his Alitalia flight landed, the streets of Leon where the pope will stay took on a carnival atmosphere, with entire blocks exploding in yellow confetti as he passed in his bulletproof popemobile along the 20-mile route from the airport.
“He came to change all Mexicans,” said Maria del Rosario Tamayo Villanueva, who waited to see the pope despite being paralyzed in both legs since childhood. “It was important to come to see him. He is a gift from God.”
From the time the pontiff boarded his plane in Rome, he took on the subject of Mexican drug war violence that has killed more than 47,000 people in the last six years, saying it is “destroying humanity and our youth.”
Benedict called on Mexicans to conquer a materialistic culture that feeds drug trafficking and said the church can be a healing force.
“The great responsibility of the church is to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask (from) the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind, and unmask the false promise, this lie that is behind” the drug culture, he said.
He also urged Cuba, where he heads on Monday, to leave behind a Marxism that “no longer responds to reality.”
Benedict has spoken out before against drug trafficking, Marxism and authoritarianism in Latin America, including during his 2007 trip to Brazil, his first to the region.
On Friday Mexican President Felipe Calderon and first lady Margarita Zavala greeted the pope at the Guanajuato International Airport in Silao and escorted him along a red carpet amid a clanging of church bells.
Benedict descended the stairs without the cane he had used when he walked to the plane in Rome, the first time he had walked with it in public.
In a tarmac speech, Benedict referred again to the everyday violence that ordinary Mexicans confront, saying he was praying for all in need “particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence.”
He said he was coming to Mexico as a pilgrim of hope, to encourage Mexicans to “transform the present structures and events which are less than satisfactory and seem immovable or insurmountable while also helping those who do not see meaning or a future in life.”
Calderon greeted the pontiff by saying, “Your visit fills us with joy in moments of great tribulation.”
Some like 42-year-old housewife Celia del Rosario Escobar said she had high hopes that Benedict would help turn around a society devastated by the drug trade and the brutal violence related to it.
“I would like that he changes the conscience of those people who are doing harm to Mexico with everything involved in drug addiction, in the mafia,” Escobar said. “I hope that we have more respect for life.”
Many see the pope’s Latin America trip as a way to strengthen the faithful in a region where Catholicism has dropped over the decades, though not as dramatically as in Europe and elsewhere.
“One sees in Latin America and also elsewhere, not a few Catholics who have a schizophrenia between individual and public morality,” the pope said earlier on the plane. “These individuals are Catholic, believers, but in their public lives they follow other paths that don’t correspond to the great values of the Gospel … so we must teach not just in individual morals but public morals.”
Benedict acknowledged the historic nature of John Paul’s first trip to Mexico — the first by any pope. The 1979 visit, just months after being elected pope and his first foreign trip, came at a time in which Mexico’s anti-religion laws were so restrictive that John Paul was technically breaking the law by wearing clerical garb in public.
John Paul also made a historic visit to Cuba in 1998, where upon his arrival in Havana he pronounced the now-famous words: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Benedict told reporters those words remain true even today, and that John Paul’s visit had launched a path of “collaboration and constructive dialogue” in Cuba that continues, albeit slowly.
In Mexico, Benedict said, violence is destroying the nation’s young.
It is a message that Enrique Abundes, one of thousands lining the papal route, was waiting to hear. The 46-year-old shoe-factory worker and father of five said he believed Benedict would inspire Mexicans to keep their children away from the temptations of organized crime.
“The pope’s visit to our city will call attention to the violence and, for us, to be good examples to our children,” he said.
The weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba, Benedict’s first to both countries, will be a test of stamina for the pope, who turns 85 next month. At the airport on Friday in Rome, the pope used a cane, apparently for the first time in public, as he walked about 100 yards (meters) to the airliner’s steps.
Papal aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benedict has been using the cane in private for about two months because it makes him feel more secure, not for any medical reason. Last fall, Benedict started using a wheeled platform to navigate the vast spaces of St. Peter’s Basilica during ceremonies. The Vatican has said that device was employed to help the pope save his energy.
Many businesses and schools had closed for the day in Leon, and thousands of people were traveling in on buses from across the country. But the city was still not at full capacity on Friday.
Still about 30 percent of the city’s 6,000 hotel rooms were still empty, said Fabiola Vera, president of the Association of Hotels and Motels of Leon. She said people may have been discouraged by rumors that there weren’t enough rooms.
The main campground in Leon, meant for tens of thousands of pilgrims, remained empty earlier in the day.
Church officials say as many as 300,000 people are expected for Sunday’s Mass.
“We greeted him with much affection and love because he is the messenger of peace,” said Antonio Alcaraz, 40, director of a public school. “His visit through his message, will improve our social problems.”
Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein, E. Eduardo Castillo and Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.