MEXICO CITY – During five days in Mexico, Pope Francis excoriated government elites for denying their people justice and peace, told bishops to do more to alleviate their flock's suffering at the hands of drug traffickers and corrupt officials, and pointedly avoided the pomp of Mexico City in favor of more humble settings.
While popes often offer gentle criticism on visits abroad, Francis seems to have gone even further in hectoring his hosts this trip. Observers said the pontiff clearly feels both the church and the government have failed Mexico's people.
"The pope literally believes that the devil is on the loose in Mexico, sowing death, misery and resignation, and he believes that the state, the church and the drug dealers are complicit," said Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "He believes that Mexico, with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, is going through an acute moral and political crisis and that the church needs to become an active agent to build a more just Mexico."
For Francis, such dressing downs are part and parcel of his Jesuit spirituality, which calls for frequent "examinations of conscience" before God.
That said, even by the pope's standards his speech to bishops Saturday was short on words of praise. Francis lauded church leaders for their work on behalf of migrants but also admonished them to be true pastors, not career-minded clerics who spew words and inoffensive denunciations that make them sound like "babbling orphans beside a tomb."
"We do not need 'princes,' but rather a community of the Lord's witnesses," Francis said.
The bulk of Mexico's bishops were appointed by St. John Paul II, who some say ignored more activist priests put forward by the local church in favor of others less likely to challenge the establishment.
Francis clearly knows the Mexican church well, having led the Latin American bishops conference while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. And the faults that he finds here — careerism, an affinity for power and prestige, and an overly exalted reverence for the clergy — are the same issues he has criticized in his own government, the Vatican Curia.
In one famous Christmas greeting, Francis listed 15 ailments that he said the Vatican is suffering including "spiritual Alzheimer's" and the "terrorism of gossip."
On this visit, Francis made his beef with the Mexican church clear in an inscription he left in a guestbook at a seminary: Priests should be pastors of God and not "clerics of the state" — a reference to the close ties that many senior churchmen have with the government.
By contrast, his speech to U.S. bishops last fall was astonishing for his praise of how they had handled sex abuse scandals — something that drew swift condemnation from victims' groups.
"This tour stands in contrast to his trips to neighboring Cuba and the U.S., where he was more of a pastor and diplomat," Chesnut said. "More than a few Latin Americans, in particular, will wonder why he was so straight-talking in Mexico yet so circumspect in Cuba, where the church is relatively repressed and the government is authoritarian."
Francis's message, and the relative bluntness of the delivery, has been welcomed by many in Mexico.
Oscar Medran, who was heading Wednesday to the pope's final Mass in Mexico in the northern border city of Juarez, said: "This is a pope who hits them where it hurts."
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.