SILAO, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI greeted hundreds of thousands of Mexicans seeking a message of hope for their violence-troubled country at an open-air Mass in the shadow of the Christ the King monument, one of the most important symbols of Mexican Catholicism.
The pope flew over the monument in a Mexican military Superpuma helicopter en route to the Mass at Bicentennial Park, where he rode in the popemobile through an enthusiastic crowd. One person handed the pope a broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero that he wore on his way to the altar at the sun-drenched park.
"We pray for him to help us, that there be no more violence in the country," said Lorena Diaz, 50, who owns a jeans factory in Leon. "We pray that he gives us peace."
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.
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.
After nightfall Sunday the pope will remotely inaugurate its new lighting system.
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. Historians say about 90,000 people died before peace was restored. The region remains Mexico's most conservatively Catholic.
With roads closed, pilgrims walked for miles to the Mass 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 sun hats, flags, potato chips and bottles of juice.
Hundreds of young priests in white and black cassocks, waiting to pass through the metal detectors, shouted "Christ Lives!" and "Long Live Christ the King!" — the battle cry of the Cristeros.
Many Mexicans said they were surprised by the warmth of Benedict, whose image is more reserved and academic than his popular predecessor, John Paul II, who was dubbed "Mexico's pope."
By Sunday morning, that seemed to have changed completely.
"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."
The pope was expected to continue his theme of calling Mexicans back to their faith to deal with the troubles of the times, including corruption, violence and poverty that has divided many families as some migrate to the United States in search of work.
"People leave for the good of their families," said Jose Porfirio Garcia Martinez, 56, an indigenous farmworker who came to the mass with 35 others from Puebla. "For us it's difficult, not seeing them for 10 years, communicating by phone and by Internet."
On Saturday, the pope 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.
The 84-year-old pope, who will be going to Cuba on Monday, did not directly address the scandal during his limited remarks Saturday. But Lombardi said his words about the need to protect children from violence referred also to the need to protect them from priestly sexual violence.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Silao and Nicole Winfield reported in Leon. AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Guanajuato and E. Eduardo Castillo in Leon contributed to this report.
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