Pope Francis always has had a special place in his heart for youth, and few places these days pose graver temptations and risks for young people than regions of Mexico hardest hit by the drug trade and drug-related violence.
On Tuesday, Francis pleaded with those young Mexicans not to give up, insisting they, and not the profits of the narcotics industry, are the country’s real wealth.
“I did not say the hope of this land,” Francis said. “Its wealth!”
In a hard-hitting address, the pope spoke in a packed stadium in Morelia, Michoacán, arguably one of the most dangerous states in Mexico.
He delivered his address after listening to the testimony of four young people, one of whom told him that in many places in Mexico, young people are “trapped by despair and get carried away by greed, corruption, and promises of an intense and easy life, but at the margins of legality.”
The pontiff, in turn, spoke about the real meaning of wealth.
“The biggest threats to hope are those words which devalue you, which make you feel second-rate,” Francis said. “The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that you do not matter to anybody or that you have been left aside. The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that, either being present or absent, you make no difference.”
He said one’s value does not lie in wearing the latest fashion or having money.
“The biggest threat is when a person feels that they must have money to buy everything, including the love of others,” Francis said. “The biggest threat is to believe that by having a big car, you will be happy.”
The pope acknowledged that many in his audience are “continually exposed to losing friends and relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror.”
He also said that it’s conceivable to lose hope when it’s impossible to find dignified work or to study, or “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,” Francis said.
Despite an exhausting four days, Pope Francis was at his best, clearly enjoying the colorful show prepared for him, encouraging two girls with Down syndrome to jump security onto the stage to give him a hug, and joking with the crowd, promising he wasn’t trying to “butter them up.”
Although the pontiff didn’t mention it directly, thousands of girls and boys in Mexico are lured into moving, either within the country or to the United States, and then forced to work in slave-like conditions or prostitution.
Francis met several Mexican survivors of human trafficking at the Vatican, and his fight against forced prostitution and modern-day slavery dates back to his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“Nonetheless, despite all this, I will never tire of saying it: You are the wealth of Mexico,” the pope told the youth.
“I say this to you and I am convinced of it,” the pontiff told them. “And do you know why? Because, like you, I believe in Jesus Christ.”
Francis then shared with them that his faith in Jesus renews his hope and outlook, and that “hand in hand with him,” he finds 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, 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.”
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Inés San Martín