Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press
SILAO, Mexico — Tens of thousands of people gathered Sunday to attend the highlight of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to this violence-troubled country: an open-air Mass in the shadow of the Christ the King monument, one of the most important symbols of Mexican Catholicism.
With roads closed, pilgrims walked on foot for miles with plastic lawn chairs, water and backpacks. Old women walked with canes. Some Mass-goers wrapped themselves in blankets or beach towel-sized Vatican flags, trekking past vendors selling sunhats, flags, potato chips and bottles of juice.
Hundreds of young priests in white and black cassocks shouted "Christ Lives!" and "Long Live Christ the King!" as they waited to pass through the metal detectors.
Benedict wanted to come to Guanajuato state specifically to see and bless the statue, which Pope John Paul II always wanted to visit but never did, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The 72-foot (22-meter) bronze monument of Christ with its outstretched arms serves as a potent reminder to Mexicans of the 1926-1929 Roman Catholic uprising against the government and its anti-clerical laws that prohibited public Masses such as the one Benedict will celebrate before an estimated 350,000 people.
Guanajuato state was the site of some of the key battles of the Cristero War, so-called because its protagonists said they were fighting for Christ the King. Tens of thousands of people died before peace was restored. The region remains Mexico's most conservatively Catholic.
The statue "expresses an identity of the Mexican people that contains a whole history in relation to the testimony of faith and those who fought for religious freedom at the time," said Monsignor Victor Rene Rodriguez, secretary general of the Mexican bishops conference.
Benedict will fly over the monument, modeled after Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue, by helicopter on his way to celebrate Mass and will bless it from the air, Lombardi said. After nightfall Sunday he will remotely inaugurate its new lighting system.
On Saturday, Benedict met with President Felipe Calderon in Guanajuato city and later told about 4,000 children massed in the colonial-era city's Peace Plaza that they are each a "gift of God to Mexico and the world."
"The disciple of Jesus does not respond to evil with evil, but is always an instrument of good instead, a herald of pardon, a bearer of happiness, a servant of unity," Benedict said. "I will pray for all of you, so that Mexico may be a place in which everyone can live in serenity and harmony."
He called on the young to be messengers of peace in a country traumatized by the deaths of more than 47,000 people in a drug war that has escalated during a government offensive against cartels.
Eight relatives of victims of violent crime were invited to meet the pope as he left Guanajuato's government palace, Calderon's office said. Lombardi noted it wasn't a sit-down meeting so much as a brief greeting.
While the pope drew a rapturous response from the faithful, his second day in Mexico was not without criticism, particularly concerning the church's treatment of children and sexual abuse.
Victims of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, launched a book Saturday containing documents from the Vatican archives showing that Holy See officials knew for decades that Maciel was a drug addict who sexually abused his seminarians.
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," Athie said.
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