LEON, Mexico - The Associated Press
There was little excitement in Leon in the hours before the pope arrived.
Crowds were thin. Spectators napped under trees. Vendors complained about the low turnout here in the conservative heartland of Mexico's Roman Catholicism.
Then, as Pope Benedict XVI's plane appeared in the shimmering heat of Friday afternoon, people poured from their homes. They packed sidewalks five and six deep, screaming ecstatically as the pope passed, waving slowly. Some burst into tears.
Many had said moments earlier that they could never love a pope as strongly as Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. But the presence of a pope on Mexican soil touched a chord of overwhelming respect and adoration for the papacy itself, the personification for many of the Catholic Church, and God. Thousands found themselves taken aback by their own emotions.
As a girl, Celia del Rosario Escobar, 42, saw John Paul II on one of his five trips to Mexico, which brought him near-universal adoration.
"I was 12 and it's an experience that still makes a deep impression on me," she said. "I thought this would be different, but, no, the experience is the same." "I can't speak," she murmured, pressing her hands to her chest and starting to cry.
Belief in the goodness and power of the pope runs deep in Guanajuato, the most observantly Catholic state in Mexico, a place of deep social conservatism and the wellspring of an armed uprising against harsh anti-clerical laws in the 1920s. Some in the crowd came for literal healing, a blessing from the pope's passage that would cure illness, or bring them more work. Others sought inspiration, rejuvenation of their faith, energy to be a better parent.
Many said the pope's message of peace and unity would help heal their country, traumatized by the deaths of more than 47,000 people in a drug war that has escalated during a government offensive against cartels that began more than five years ago.
In a speech on the airport tarmac shortly after arriving, Benedict said 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 had come 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." The hills of sun-baked Guanajuato are far from Mexico's major drug areas, but the conflict has hit the state, with recent apparently gang-related shootings killing some two dozen people.
But even drug gangs profess to respect the pope. At least 11 banners signed by the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel were found in Leon and four other Guanajuato municipalities last week promising peace during his visit.
Escobar said she has high hopes that Benedict will help turn around a society devastated by the drug trade and the brutal violence it spawns.
"I would like him to raise the consciousness of those people who are hurting Mexico, those involved in drug addiction, in the mafia," Escobar said. "I hope that we have will more respect for life." Antonio Martinez, 57, said he wanted relief from diabetes and divine intervention that would bring him more than occasional work in Leon's shoe factories. He stood by the side of the road, resting against his bicycle, waiting for a glimpse of the pope.
"Simply greeting the pope and receiving his blessing can change our lives," Martinez said. "I believe that my health will improve, that more sources of work will appear." The faithful lined more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the pope's route from the airport into Leon shouting the ultimate welcome: "Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican!" Many thought the world's most populous Spanish-speaking Catholic country would not offer such a warm reception, complete with folk dancing and mariachis at the airport, to a pope some consider distant and academic.
"This is a proud country of hospitality, and nobody feels like a stranger in your land," Benedict said upon landing to wild cheers. "I knew that. Now I see it and now I feel it in my heart." The streets of Leon, where the pope will stay during his three-day trip, took on a carnival atmosphere, with entire blocks exploding in yellow confetti when he passed in his bulletproof popemobile.
Enrique Abundes, a 46-year-old shoe-factory worker and father of five, said he believes Benedict will 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.
Another shoe-factory worker, Juan Manuel Rosales, brought a glass-enclosed altar to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, patron saint of a nearby town. Around the ceramic statue he placed pictures of the sick and asked the saint that they be healed.
"Everyone has a different reason for being here," Rosales said. "I hope to become a better person. I hope that we stop shooting each other." Luz del Carmen Castillo Silva, a 15-year-old student at a Catholic women's technical college, said she came five hours from the city of Tlaxcala to strengthen a faith that already had her attending daily Mass.
"I want to become another person when I see the pope, ministering to people, speaking with God. ... Seeing the pope, we see the love that we have for Christ," she said.
The weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba is Benedict's first to both countries, and it will be a test of stamina for the pope, who turns 85 next month. At the airport Friday in Rome, he used a cane, apparently for the first time in public, while walking 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 and 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 helps the pope avoid overexerting himself.
Many businesses and schools closed in Leon on Friday, and thousands of people were traveling in on buses from across Mexico. But the city was not at full capacity.
About 30 percent of the city's 6,000 hotel rooms were still empty Friday, said Fabiola Vera, president of the Association of Hotels and Motels of Leon. She said people might have been discouraged by rumors that there weren't enough rooms.