Pope Francis has called on priests and other church workers in the western Mexican state of Michoacán not to run away from the challenges and dangers of working in a place ravaged by the country's drug wars.
"What is the temptation that we face in environments dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disrespect for personal dignity, and indifference to suffering?" the Pope asked during a mass held for priests, nuns, and seminarians in the state capital Morelia.
"Resignation," the pontiff answered his own question. "Resignation terrifies us and makes us barricade ourselves in our vestries."
Mexico's drug wars are often dated to December 2006 when the then newly-elected President Felipe Calderón launched a major military-led offensive against organized crime in Michoacán.
Since then the state has suffered from multiple conflicts involving the homegrown organizations La Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar, as well as invaders such as the Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.
In 2013, the state also saw the rise of armed vigilante groups who initially took on organized crime, and then became at least partially infiltrated by it.
Levels of violence have fallen off somewhat since. Today an unstable balance of barely contained rivalries exists that involves factions of the vigilante movement, as well as remnants of old cartels, and new ones that appear to be emerging.
Murder rates in the last few months show a worrying increase that experts say suggests that violence could soon explode again.
The Pope's decision to go to Michoacán also reflected the fact that the Archbishop of Morelia is one of his strongest allies within the Mexican ecclesiastical hierarchy, which has tended to stick to to generalities in its discussion of the drug wars.
In 2013, Cardinal Alberto Suárez Inda led eight other bishops in signing an unusually direct open letter in which they detailed the impact of the violence in Michoacán, and the government's inadequate response to it.
"There is a permanent sense of defenselessness and despair that adds to the anger and fear caused by the complicity, forced or willing, of some authorities with organized crime," the bishops wrote in the context of the rise of the vigilante movement. "There is a general perception that the federal, state, and municipal authorities are not efficient."
In an interview last month in the Mexican daily El Universal, in the lead up to the Pope's visit, Archbishop Suárez also echoed a phrase that the Pope has often used, urging priests not to become "bureaucrats" and bishops to avoid "the mentality of princes."
Francis repeated the call in Tuesday's mass in the middle of his insistence that resignation to the situation in places like Michoacán would be succumbing to "one of the devil's favorite weapons."
Michoacán is one of the most dangerous places to be a priest in Mexico, though the situation is worse other states, particularly in neighboring Guerrero.
According to the Mexico-based Multimedia Catholic Center, there were four priests killed in Mexico during the six-year administration of President Vicente Fox before the drug wars started in 2006. That figure rose to 17 during the government of President Calderón. It had already reached 11 in the first three years of the current administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The Pope's message in Michoacán was just the latest of a series of gauntlets he has thrown down during his visit to Mexico — home to one in ten of the world's Catholics — that began last Friday night.
Over the weekend he highlighted corruption and complacency in both the political and the ecclesiastical elite, as well as called on ordinary Mexicans to demand justice. On Monday he travelled to the southern state of Chiapas where he apologized to the country's indigenous population for centuries of discrimination and exploitation. He also prayed at the tomb of radical bishop Samuel Ruiz who some accused of being a communist.
So far, however, the Pope's messages have prompted little reaction from the elite, other than general comments about how great it is to have the Pope visiting Mexico.
"The Pope's visit is important because it sends a message of peace that Michoacán badly needs given the presence of organized crime," former President Calderón told reporters after the mass on Tuesday. He attended the event alongside his wife Margarita Zavala, who is currently gearing up to launch her own presidential bid for the next elections in 2018.
The Pope's six-day tour is due to wind up on Wednesday in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where Francis is expected to turn his guns on migration policy in both the United States and Mexico.
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