In crime-plagued periphery, pope preaches conversion

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ECATEPEC, Mexico (CNS) — Pope Francis began his travels to
Mexico’s “peripheries” by visiting an overcrowded, sprawling
settlement known internationally as a hunting ground for girls to force into
prostitution and for boys to enlist in the drug trade.

Ecatepec, on the northern edge of Mexico City, also has tidy
gated communities and a new shopping Mall with department stores like Sears, a
big WalMart, Starbucks and dozens of other shops and restaurants.

Pope Francis celebrated Mass Feb. 14 on a vast open field
with some 300,000 people. The high altar platform was decorated with Aztec
designs — flowers and birds — made of flowers and petals.

More than 1.7 million people live in Ecatepec, which,
Vatican Radio described as “a lawless neighborhood where organized crime,
pollution and poverty reign and where most people fear to tread.” Like
Ciudad Juarez in the north was a decade ago, Ecatepec has now become famous as
a place where it is particularly dangerous to be a woman because of murders,
kidnappings and human trafficking.

Sister Angelica Garcia Barela, a member of the Servant Missionaries
of the Word, was so thrilled the pope was visiting. “He comes to show the
faith and to change hearts. The pope’s faith, his enthusiasm and joy, isn’t
fleeting and it’s contagious. Much can change.”

With other members of her order, Sister Garcia spent the
night at the Mass site so she would be in place early to watch over the
pre-consecrated hosts she would help distribute during Communion to people far
from the papal altar.

Her main ministry is going door to door sharing the Bible
with families. She knows how to evangelize and said Pope Francis is the perfect
example of “evangelization through presence.”

After Mass, Pope Francis recited the Angelus with the
thousands gathered on the dusty field. Before leading the prayer, he recognized
“how much each one of you has suffered to reach this moment, how much you
have ‘walked’ to make this day a day of feasting, a time of thanksgiving.”

He urged the people to step up and work together to “make
this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities.”

It should be a land where, he said, there is “no need
to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work, no
need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land
that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are
destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”

In his homily, Pope Francis did not specifically mention the
violence against women or the drug traffickers, but instead addressed the ways
in which people give into little temptations that too easily grow into great

In the Gospel story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in
the desert, the pope said, “Jesus does not respond to the devil with his
own words, instead he uses the words of God, the words of scripture. Because,
brothers and sisters, ingrain this in your minds: You cannot dialogue with the

“You cannot dialogue with the devil because he will
always win,” he insisted. “Only the power of the word of God can
defeat him.”

Lent, the pope said, is a time of conversion, which involves
acknowledging each day how the devil tries to tempt and divide people. In a
country known for huge inequalities in income and opportunity, Pope Francis
denounced as a work of the devil the idea of “a society of the few and for
the few.”

“Three great temptations” — wealth, vanity and
pride — are behind such an attitude and so many other ills that destroy
society and attack human dignity, he said.

The sinful use of money and material things, he said, is
“seizing hold of goods destined for all and using them only for ‘my own
people.'” It involves living off the sweat and labor of others, “even
at the expense of their very lives,” the pope said.

Such “bread,” he said, “tastes of pain,
bitterness and suffering. This is the bread that a corrupt family or society
gives its own children.”

“We know what it means to be seduced by money, fame and
power,” Pope Francis said. “For this reason, the church gives us the
gift of this Lenten season, invites us to conversion, offering but one certainty:
he is waiting for us and wants to heal our hearts of all that tears us down. He
is the God who has a name: mercy. His name is our wealth.”

At the end of Mass, Bishop Oscar Dominguez Couttolenc of
Ecatepec told the pope that “like many other places, we experience poverty
and violence, made flesh in the pain of those who suffer because of corruption,
hunger, poverty and all the manifestations of evil that lead to the
deterioration of our common home.”

In response, he said, the faithful of Ecatepec pray, reflect
and work, trying to live a “spirituality of communion,” a sense of
solidarity strengthened by the pope’s visit.

Before landing by helicopter in Ecatepec, Pope Francis was
treated to a special aerial viewing of the nearby Teotihuacan Pyramids,
believed to date from about 300 B.C.

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Contributing to this story was Junno Arocho Esteves in
Mexico City.

Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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