2012-03-24 Vatican Radio‘Bienvenido al corazon de Mexico’ – ‘Welcome to the heart of Mexico’ are the words emblazoned on a giant billboard at the entrance to Guanajuato airport and the people of this city, at the geographical centre of the country, have certainly pulled out all the stops to welcome the Pope. The airport is situated about 35 km from the city centre of Leon, and as the pope mobile made its way slowly through the industrial suburbs, under the new millennium gate arching over the road and on into town, the crowds went literally wild with excitement. People of all ages had lined the route for hours, many climbing onto balconies or low roofs of buildings to get a better view, singing, waving flags, balloons and banners, or throwing yellow and white tickertape to carpet the papal route into town.
At the official welcome ceremony under a white awning set up at the airport, Mexican president Felipe Calderon proudly reminded the Pope that his nation remains one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Despite a difficult history of conflict with the state over the past century, the Church here is renowned for its deep Marian devotion and for its dedication to the successor of Peter. Pope John Paul chose Mexico for his first ever pastoral journey in 1979 and made a total of five visits to this country, though he never fulfilled his wish to visit this city and the great statue of Christ the King standing on nearby Mount Cubilete with arms outstretched across the whole region.
Loud cheers punctuated Pope Benedict’s first address to the people of Mexico as he told them he had come in the footsteps of his predecessor “as a pilgrim of faith, hope and love” to confirm them in their faith. Believers in Christ, he said, must act as a leaven in society, contributing to a respectful and peaceful coexistence based on the dignity of every human being. This dignity, he insisted, is expressed “in the fundamental right to freedom of religion in its full meaning and integrity” – a poignant message to his hosts in the Mexican government, currently debating legislation on religious liberty that would finally put an end to the anti-clerical discrimination of past decades. Listen to Philippa Hitchen's report from Mexico