Pope Focuses on Youth in Mexico Visit

Mexico youthPope Benedict XVI worked to build the future
of Mexico’s church by reaching out to children Saturday as tens of
thousands of teenagers streamed into a vast, shade-starved park to camp
out overnight ahead of a gigantic papal Mass.


Benedict awoke to the
pre-dawn serenade of two dozen youths from a Guadalajara church group
who sang him a traditional folk song after getting as close as security
would allow to the college in Leon where the pontiff is staying during
his three-day visit to Mexico.

“We sang with
all our heart and all our force,” said Maria Fernanda de Luna, a member
of the group. “It gave us goose bumps to sing ‘Las Mananitas’ for him.”

Benedict
has taken up Pope John Paul II’s drive to reach out to young Roman
Catholics, following in his footsteps by rallying millions of young
faithful to join him for World Youth Days, the Catholic youth festivals
held once every three years. The next edition is scheduled for Rio de
Janeiro next year.

His only public remarks
Saturday were planned for a meeting with about 4,000 children in Peace
Plaza in the city of Guanajuato. He was expected to refer again to the
need for them to stay away from the drug-fueled violence that wracks
Mexico.

“We young people are getting closer to
the church and to God, instead of getting closer to drugs and
violence,” said Juan Daniel Pacheco, 18, of Apaseo el Grande in
Guanajuato state as he sought shade with his friends at one of the
campgrounds that were quickly filling with faithful arriving for
Sunday’s Mass. “We are young people who will be able to change Mexico.”

The
focus on youth fits with the Vatican’s drive to re-evangelize parts of
the world where Catholicism has fallen by the wayside, trying to rally
the next generation to embrace a faith that their parents may have
abandoned. While Europe has certainly been Benedict’s focus to date,
Mexico also has seen its number of Catholics fall.

“The
Mexican church feels like it’s lost a few generations of Catholics,”
said Joseph Palacios, a professor of Latin American studies at
Georgetown University, citing the battles over liberation theology that
drove many left-leaning Catholics away. To get back its numbers, the
Mexican church is “moving forward with the new generation,” he said.

Yet
as much as Benedict was receiving a rapturous welcome from young
Catholics, his first full day in Mexico was not without criticism –
particularly concerning the church’s treatment of children and sexual
abuse.

On the second day of the pope’s visit,
victims of Marcial Maciel launched a new book containing documents on
the Vatican’s alleged cover-up of sexual abuse of seminarians by Maciel,
the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

Alberto
Athie, former priest and one of three co-authors of “The Desire Not to
Know,” called on Benedict to publicly recognize the church’s
responsibility for Maciel’s abuse.

“The church won’t fall. On the contrary, it will be reconstructed,” he said.

Of
the 43.5 million Mexicans under age 20, 36.2 million are Catholic, or
83.2 percent, just under the national average. The largest group of
Mexicans overall are children aged 5 to 9 – a prime target for
Benedict’s efforts to rebuild a church that has fallen victim to the
same secular trends that have emptied churches across Europe.

Benedict will greet tens of thousands more on Sunday, when he celebrates Mass in the enormous Bicentennial Park.

Despite
the heat, a festival atmosphere prevailed as thousands of Mexican teens
streamed out of buses from across the country to set up camp at the
park, many singing or playing guitars to the tune of the song “La
Bamba,” with the lyrics slightly changed: “Para ver al Papa, se necesita
una poca de gracia.” (“To see the pope, you need some grace”)

The
weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba is Benedict’s first to both countries,
and only his second to Latin America. He visited Brazil in 2007.

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 at the end of 2006.

Teens on Saturday said the damage of violence and drug use emphasized the importance of staying on a religious path.

“I’ve
been drawn closer to all that is spiritual because it helps me in
life,” said Carla Patricia Maldonado Moreno, 15, of nearby Celaya. “I
know I’m not going to surrender to whatever obstacle.”

Pilgrims streamed in from all over Mexico and as far away as Phoenix, Arizona.

“It
is faith that moves us,” said Alejandra Angoa, 34, a handicrafts-maker
from the state of Tlaxcala. She walked alongside people of all ages
carrying sleeping bags, coolers, backpacks, rolling suitcases and jugs
of water to the campsite in 86-degree (30 degree centigrade) weather.

Marcela
Perez, 35, was exhausted after the trek and huddled in the only shade
she could find alongside a portable toilet. But she did not regret
coming.

“I think it’s worth it,” she said. “He
is the head, the rock for us who have been baptized, for the church.
It’s a unique experience.”

Associated
Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Silao and
Nicole Winfield reported in Leon. AP writers E. Eduardo Castillo and
Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.

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