POSTED: 3:10 a.m. HST, Mar 23, 2012
LEON, Mexico >> Pope Benedict XVI headed off on his first trip to Mexico on Friday, using a cane as he boarded the plane for a trip that a representative says will help him build his own bonds with a nation that had a passionate adoration of his predecessor.
Pope John Paul II was greeted with ecstatic scenes on each of his five trips to Mexico, and love for the late pontiff was so strong that millions turned out to honor him even after death when a glass case containing his blood was brought to the country.
He was a vigorous 58-year-old when he first arrived. Benedict is now 85, his age emphasized by the black cane he carried as he set out on his own pilgrimage on Friday.
Papal aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pope started using the cane about two months ago in private because it makes him feel more secure, and not for any medical problem.
So far Mexicans have shown restrained excitement about the pope’s arrival in Guanajuato, a deeply conservative state in sun-baked central Mexico. Dedicated campgrounds with a capacity for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were virtually empty.
Carlos Aguiar, president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, said he expected the faithful to begin arriving Friday.
The papal envoy, Christophe Pierre, said Benedict’s visit would allow Mexicans to “discover the pope” and “his ability to communicate, to speak deeply, but simply.”
There were some stirrings of enthusiasm about Benedict’s first trip to Mexico as locals tidied up the city in preparation. About 60 people burned brush to create a neater vista along a section of the pope’s route from the airport to the Catholic school where he will spend his three nights in Mexico.
Maria Belen, a 36-year-old homemaker, swept inches of powdery dust and gravel off a sidewalk.
“It’s the first time a pope has visited our community. We’re excited,”
Farther down the highway, young men and women sold flags in the yellow-and-white Vatican colors, although few motorists stopped to buy them.
The biggest crowd appeared to be the thousands of youths attending a convention of evangelical Protestant missionaries a the highway exit leading to Bicentennial Park, where Benedict will deliver Mass on Sunday.
Light of the World Church spokesman Ezequiel Zamora said the convention had been planned long before the pope’s visit was announced, and the evangelical church had no intention of trying to upstage the pontiff.
Guanajuato is 93.8 percent Catholic, the highest percentage in Mexico, but Protestant and evangelical denominations have made deeper inroads in other parts of the country, particularly along the northern and southern borders.
The last time a pope visited Mexico, more than 1 million believers cheered and wept in the streets of Mexico City. Dancers dressed in Aztec costumes shook rattles and blew conch shells inside the cathedral where John Paul II canonized the first Indian saint in the Americas.
A decade later, Benedict comes to a church battling to overcome painful setbacks that include legalized abortion and gay marriage in the capital of the most populous Catholic country in the Spanish-speaking world.
It is also a nation grappling with a drug war that has spread fear into once-tranquil regions such as Guanajuato.
“There is a very immense peace that we need in Mexico because of the insecurity,” said Marcela Arguello, a 26-year-old housewife who said she planned to stand along the route of the papal motorcade through the city of Leon, the state’s largest city.
Mexico has been traumatized by the deaths of more than 47,000 people in drug-related violence in less than six years, and while Guanajuato is far from major drug trafficking routes, the shadow of the conflict looms even here.
“Yes, he’ll talk about violence, we can’t ignore that, but I can tell you as a representative of the Holy Father that there’s much more than violence in Mexico,” Pierre said.
“The Holy Father, in the name of God, comes to remind, to ask people not to lose their path in life,” Pierre added.
As many as 300,000 people are expected to gather for the Sunday Mass.
Guanajuato’s constitution declares that life begins at conception and bars abortion with extremely limited exceptions. Seven women were jailed there in 2010 for the deaths of their newborns and later released. The women said they had miscarriages, not abortions.
Benedict’s church is encouraging more such laws across Mexico, reacting partly to the legalization of gay marriage and abortion in Mexico City, the cultural and political center of the country.
At the same time, church leaders are fighting to overcome a scandal over the most influential Mexican figure in the church.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ order, which John Paul II praised as a model of rectitude. But a series of investigations forced the order to acknowledge in 2010 that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children. Church documents released in a book this week reveal the Vatican had been told of Maciel’s drug abuse and pederasty decades ago.
President Felipe Calderon’s government is backing legislation that would end legal restrictions on religious observances in public places, as well as a ban on religious participation in politics.
If approved, it could lay the groundwork for laws allowing church ownership of media and openly religious education on school property, said political analyst John Ackerman at the legal research institute at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
“This opens the door for the church to start using public spaces,” Ackerman said. “It has the full intention to be interpreted as occupying public spaces with religious ceremonies, that’s what’s on the table.”
The hacker group Anonymous in Mexico crashed at least two of the websites for Benedict’s visit to Mexico on Thursday, claiming his trip is meant to support Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, which is especially strong in Guanajuato, at the start of a presidential election campaign.
Anonymous Mexico also said in a video posted on social media sites that the pope’s visit will cost Mexicans money that could be better spent on the poor.
Associated Press writer France d’Emilio contributed to this report from Rome. Dario Lopez-Mills contributed from Leon.