The National Catholic Review

In a fiery speech to Mexico’s young people in Morelia, the city where the country’s drug wars, with its related violence, started, Pope Francis hit hard against the drug cartels that exploit and destroy their lives. And he told them, Jesus “would never ask us to be assassins,” and he “would never send us to death”; on the contrary, “everything in him speaks of life.”

Francis spoke to 50,000 of young people at an extraordinarily colorful, festive rally at the “Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon” stadium in Morelia. They had come from every one of the 32 states of Mexico for this event, and they celebrated this precious moment with him, in song, dance and personal testimonies. They had come to witness the first-ever papal visit to Morelia, the capital city of the state of Michoacán. 

They and Pope Francis know that in both this city and state five drug cartels have wreaked havoc on the lives of the young, and indeed of the whole society through violence, corruption, extortion, kidnapping, human-trafficking, intimidation and promises that often lead to death. Indeed, more than 100,000 have died in drug-related violence in this state in recent years and countless lives have been ruined, with many young people driven to despair. And the main market for these drugs is the United States. 

From his 21 years as bishop in Buenos Aires, Francis knows well the destructive force of drugs and the deadly power of the drug dealers. He supported his priests in the shantytowns in their valiant efforts to prevent young people getting involved in this deadly traffic, and he defended their leader—Father Pepe de Maria—when the drug lords threatened to kill him if he did not stop his work in those shantytowns.

Today, in the stadium, he not only hit out at the drug cartels, he also sought to restore the young people by encouraging them to have a sense of their own worth and by offering them hope.

“You are one of Mexico’s greatest treasures,” he told them. “You are the wealth of Mexico. You are the wealth of the church.” But, he said, he understood well “that often it is difficult to feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror.”

He said he recognized that “it is hard to feel the wealth of a nation when there are no opportunities for dignified work, no possibilities for study or advancement, when you feel your rights are being trampled on, which then leads you to extreme situations. It is difficult to appreciate the value of a place when, because of your youth, you are used for selfish purposes, seduced by promises that end up being untrue.”

He explained that it is important they truly value themselves. Indeed, he said, “You cannot live in hope, or look to the future if you do not first know how to value yourselves, if you do not feel that your life, your hands, your history, is worth the effort.”

Francis told them that “Hope is born when you are able to experience that all is not lost; and for this to happen it is necessary to start at home, to begin with yourself. [To realize that] not everything is lost. I am not lost; I am worth something. I am worth a lot.”

But there are “threats to hope,” he said. He listed some of the biggest ones as “words which devalue you, which make you feel second rate,” the feeling “that you do not matter to anybody or that that you have been left aside” and the feeling “that, either being present or absent, you make no difference.” He said the latter feeling “kills” and “crushes us, and opens the door to much suffering.”

In addition to all this, he said “the principal threat to hope is to allow yourself to believe that you begin to be valuable when you start wearing the right clothes, the latest brands and fashions, or when you enjoy prestige, are important because you have money; but in the depths of your heart you do not believe that you are worthy of kindness or love.” Indeed, he said, the biggest threats are “when a person feels that they must have money to buy everything, including the love of others” and when a person believes “that by having a big car you will be happy.” Francis, departing from his text debunked this way of thinking.

Then speaking from his heart to theirs, he explained that he is convinced that they are Mexico’s “wealth” because of his faith in Jesus, a faith that they too share. He assured the young people that “hand in hand with him, we can move forward, hand in hand with him we can begin again and again.”  

Moreover, he said, “hand in hand with him we find the strength to say: it is a lie to believe that the only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death. Hand in hand with Jesus Christ we can say: it is a lie that the only way to live as young people here is in poverty and exclusion; in the exclusion of opportunities, in the exclusion of spaces, in the exclusion of training and education, in the exclusion of hope.”

Francis summed it all up by telling them: “It is Jesus Christ who refutes all attempts to render you useless or to be mere mercenaries of other people’s ambitions.” 

Then speaking as their pastor he offered them some important advice: “when everything seems too much, when it seems that the world is crashing down around you, embrace his Cross, draw close to him and please, never let go of his hand; please, never leave him.”

He assured them that “hand in hand” with Jesus “it is possible to live fully, by holding his hand it is possible to believe that it is worth the effort to give your best, to be leaven, salt and light among your friends, neighborhoods, and your community.”

With this trust in Jesus he said, they should not allow themselves to be “excluded” or “devalued” or treated “like a commodity.” Of course, if they follow this path, he said, then “you may not be able to have the latest car model at the door, you will not have pockets filled with money, but you will have something that no one can take away from you, which is the experience of being loved, embraced and accompanied.” They will have “the experience of being family, of feeling oneself as part of a community,” and this is “one of the best antidotes to all that threatens us, because it makes us feel that we are a part of the great family of God.”

He assured them that what he had told them “is not an invitation to flee and enclose ourselves,”; on the contrary it is an invitation “to go out and to invite others, to go out and proclaim to others that being young in Mexico is the greatest wealth, and consequently, it cannot be sacrificed.”

Drawing near the end of his talk, Francis told these young Mexicans that “Jesus is your hope, and he would never ask us to be assassins; rather, he calls us to be disciples. He would never send us out to death, but rather everything in him speaks of life. A life in a family, life in a community; families and communities for the good of society.” Moreover, he said, Jesus “destroys all efforts to make you useless or mere instruments of other people’s ambitions.” The young people broke into thunderous applause when he finished speaking and many shouted “Viva el Papa!”

The pope’s message, however, was not just directed to the 50,000 enthusiastic youth in the stadium, it was intended for all the young people in Mexico, as Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesman, explained at a press briefing during the pope’s one-day visit to Morelia.

Francis sees the drug trade in Mexico and the violence, corruption and human trafficking that accompany it, as not only a threat to the young people in this country, but also as a threat to the whole of society. He stated this on the first day, first when he spoke to the country’s political and civic leaders at the Palacio Nacional, and afterwards to the bishops Indeed, he called on the bishops “not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the church.” He wants them to be more engaged in this whole field and, today, he set an example by his visit to Morelia.

Pope Francis concludes his visit to Mexico tomorrow by going to Ciudad Juarez where he is sure to address another major issue: migration. 

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