CIUDAD JUÃREZ – Pope Francis on Wednesday became the first pope to set foot in this border city, which having emerged only recently from a bloody drug war saw in his visit a beacon of hope for a more permanent peace.
Pope Francis delivered a powerful message of repentance and forgiveness to multitudes of local residents, New Mexicans and Texans at an outdoor Mass near the border. Hundreds of people pushed through security barriers to get closer to the Mass, but there appeared to be no violence.
The Mass concluded a heavily symbolic visit to Mexico and to this long-suffering city.
In his five-day tour of Mexico, Pope Francis denounced corruption, organized crime, the evils of drugs and human trafficking; praised indigenous traditions once criticized by the Catholic Church; and implored Mexico to have mercy on the thousands of migrants making the treacherous journey north.
People began pouring into the streets of Ciudad Juárez before dawn to stake a position where they hoped to catch a fleeting glimpse of the pope or receive a momentary blessing. They sang and danced to pass the time. There were chants like: “Melon! Papaya! Que el papa no se vaya,” a rhyme roughly translated as “Melon! Papaya! May the pope never leave!” And songs included Mexico’s “Cielito Lindo” with its famous “Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores” refrain.
Pope Francis’ plane touched down around 10 a.m. at the airport. He was greeted by hundreds of people cheering from stadium seating on the tarmac. At a small red-and-white painted restaurant near the airport, people gathered in booths to watch his arrival on TV.
Grecia Martinez, 11, watched the screen intently from her seat at the counter.
“It’s emotional” seeing the pope, she said, sharing some personal anxieties. “I want him to fill me with peace and harmony.”
Pope Francis’ visit took him from the city’s southern edge, north to the U.S. border, with stops along a major north-south artery.
He made his first stop at a state prison on the city’s south side, where he spoke out against a “circle of violence” provoked by “isolation, separation, incarceration; pushing problems away and believing that such measures truly solve problems.”
“The problem of insecurity doesn’t end only by incarceration,” Francis told a group of prisoners, “but is instead a call to intervene head-on in the structural and cultural causes of insecurity that affect the whole social framework.”
Ciudad Juárez suffered a horrific period of violence between 2008 and 2011, when rival criminal organizations battled for control of a lucrative gateway to move drugs and contraband to the U.S. market. Thousands were killed and many residents have terrible stories of losing friends and family, suffering extortion and kidnapping or witnessing shootouts.
Many of those motivated to come out to see the pope expressed a feeling that his visit would unite residents and inspire peace.
“Faith is part of spirituality,” said Emily Benavides, a teacher and church volunteer. “And when you have faith, you can’t harm another person.”
Marta Rodriguez and her family waited at the southern end of the long avenue that would take the pope from the prison to a meeting with business leaders and factory workers in the middle of town.
She hoped the pontiff might bless her severely disabled 20-year-old son, Luis Moises Navarro, who lay on a cot. He has cerebral palsy, she said, and cannot talk. She and other family members came from Midland-Odessa in West Texas, she said.
“We camped out,” she said. “We’re hoping for the direct bendición,” or blessing, “but if not, that is OK. As long as we are near him when he is passing through.”
As the “popemobile” sped down the avenue, people erupted in cheers and screams of joy, waving and snapping cellphone photos and recording videos. He made the sign of the cross as he passed Rodriguez and her son.
In a message delivered to workers and business leaders at midday, Pope Francis admonished all to find “spaces for dignified work … especially for the young people.” He called the “lack of opportunities for education and sustainable, profitable work” a primary cause of poverty.
“And this poverty is a hotbed for falling into the circle of drug trafficking and violence,” he said. “The present and future of Mexico can’t be left abandoned and alone.”
A luncheon at a seminary followed before Pope Francis made his way to the border.
More than 200,000 people awaited him inside the fenced-off outdoor venue where he would preside over Mass. Thousands more holding free tickets to the Mass, and who had been waiting in line for hours, breached security barricades after officials stopped letting people inside. There appeared to be no violence as a result, as many hundreds of people poured onto and across the closed border highway along the fence line next to the Mass venue. Security officers struggled to keep people at bay as they pushed through one after another barricade line, bypassing metal detectors.
Rosina Ramirez flipped gorditas at the red-and-white painted restaurant on the pope’s route to and from the airport.
“I didn’t imagine ever again feeling this warmth and faith in Juárez,” she said.