Be unified, speak out on drug violence, Pope Francis tells Mexico’s bishops

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MEXICO CITY - Pope Francis demanded forceful denunciations of drug violence in Mexico from the country's bishops, who have preferred timid pronouncements instead of speaking prophetically on a tragedy that has claimed more than 100,000 lives over the past 10 years and left another 25,000 Mexicans missing.

Speaking Feb. 13 to an audience of bishops in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, Pope Francis urged them to confront the scourge of drug cartels and organized crime by raising their voices, developing pastoral plans, and "drawing in and embracing the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities."

"I urge you not to underestimate the moral and anti-social challenge, which the drug trade represents for young people and Mexican society as a whole," Pope Francis said. "The magnitude of this phenomenon ... and the gravity of the violence ... do not allow us as pastors of the church to hide behind anodyne denunciations."

The pope spoke to the Mexican bishops for more than 40 minutes, delivering a tough talk on matters the pope plans to highlight in his six-day Mexican trip, including violence, migrants and indigenous issues. In off-the-cuff remarks, he warned of "the temptation of aloofness and clericalism" for bishops, called for clerical transparency and asked for unity in the Mexican bishops' conference, which has pursued closer ties with political leaders in recent years, while speaking softly - if at all - on uncomfortable issues such as corruption.

Pope Francis hit hardest on the drug issue, something retired Pope Benedict XVI said nothing about in his 2012 trip to Mexico. It's an issue that has vexed Mexico and the Catholic Church over the past decade as a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime has caused violence to rise, along with offenses such as extortion and kidnap. Many of those victims and victimizers were baptized Catholics.

The violence has claimed the lives more than a dozen priests over the past five years, while some dioceses have been accused to collecting "narcolimosnas" or "drug alms," and drug bosses - who often consider themselves proper Catholics - construct and fix parishes and sponsor patron saint feast days.

Pope Francis urged "prophetic courage" and implementing a pastoral approach of going to the peripheries, working with families and building bridges with parish communities, schools and the authorities, saying that only then "will people finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened."

Pope Francis also alluded to the folkloric Santa Muerte, a skeletal pseudo-saint attracting hordes of followers in Mexico and Latin America, including many in the illegal drug trade.

"I am particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money which, in the end, 'moth and rust consume,'" he said.

The rise of Santa Muerte worship over the past 15 years has alarmed the Mexican church and drawn Vatican condemnations, said Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied the pseudo-saint and estimates it now has 10 million followers in Mexico and abroad.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016