MEXICO CITY — In a stinging rebuke to Mexico‘s church hierarchy, Pope Francis on Saturday told bishops that they had lost their way in “gossip” and “intrigue,” and challenged them to “begin anew” and tend to the church’s worshipers.
Speaking before rows of solemn bishops in this city’s majestic Metropolitan Cathedral, Francis spared no words as he painted an almost biblical picture of a church seduced by power and money.
“Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs,” he said.
Francis’s sharp criticism came on a morning filled with symbols of temporal and ecclesiastical power, marking a discordant note on the first full day of a trip to Mexico designed to demonstrate his devotion to the powerless.
The morning began at the National Palace on the colonial Zócalo, the central square where President Enrique Peña Nieto and other dignitaries greeted Francis with full honors. But the pomp, laid on by politicians jostling for some reflected glory of the pope’s popularity, seemed at odds with a trip that Francis had described as a pilgrimage.
Indeed, the pope made his own pilgrimage on Saturday afternoon to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, to celebrate Mass before tens of thousands of worshipers. Then, as dusk fell over the giant city, Francis entered the shrine’s inner sanctuary and sat contemplating the Virgin’s olive-skinned image, a symbol of the fusion of Latin America’s disparate peoples under a nurturing maternal image of the divine.
For Mexicans, it was the sort of gesture that would long resonate.
“Is he revolutionary?” asked Maria Otilia Flores Cerón, 50, watching the Mass on a giant screen outside the basilica. “Yes. He is unifying everybody.”
Although many Mexicans had expected Francis to address the country’s corruption and bloodshed when he spoke to political leaders, it was religious authorities who received the full force of his anger.
“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests,” he said. “Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander.”
He even departed from his prepared text for the sharp-tongued scolding: “If you want to fight, do it, but as men do. Say it to each other’s faces and after that, like men of God, pray together.” He added, “If you went too far, ask for forgiveness.”
The strength of the pope’s denunciation came as a surprise even to those who had followed his earlier warnings to church leaders.
“I have never seen a scolding so severe, so drastic, so brutal to any bishops’ group,” said Roberto Blancarte, a scholar of the Mexican church at the Colegio de México. “The bishops will have to examine their consciences.”
The pope’s words will invigorate groups in the Mexican church who have long been critical of the distance that bishops keep from the faithful, living in luxury and socializing with politicians and wealthy businessmen, Mr. Blancarte said. In a speech that laid out many of the themes the pope is expected to address as he travels the length of Mexico, Francis warned that the church had become complacent in facing the dangers of drug trafficking and urged the Mexican church to “embrace the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities” to help “people escape the raging waters that drown so many.”
He also called on the bishops to show a “singular tenderness” to indigenous groups, and to continue to protect the migrants traveling to the “promised land” of the United States.
Francis did not entirely spare Mexican political leaders. In his morning speech to them, he listed Mexico’s problems directly and assigned blame obliquely.
“Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all,” the pope said, “sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development.”
The contradiction of a pope trying to speak openly of the burden of corruption while being regaled by politicians who either tolerate it or are believed to be corrupt themselves made many people uneasy.
“This is a disgrace, they’re making a circus of it,” said Soledad Loaeza, a scholar at the Colegio de México who has written about church-state relations in Mexico.
Mexico has a long anticlerical history. Governments expropriated church property as early as 1859 and fought a war against Catholic rebels in central Mexico in the 1920s. But in the past two decades, since laws against the church have relaxed, the country’s governments have moved closer to the church.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s government has deepened that relationship, Ms. Loaeza said, and the pope’s visit “is a recourse that they interpret will increase their popularity.”
On Sunday the pope was to travel to the vast urban slum of Ecatepec to offer Mass, the first in a series of stops that each mark a kind of frontier, said the Rev. Juan Carlos Henríquez, a Jesuit sociologist. He flies on Monday to Chiapas, on Mexico’s southern border, where indigenous communities have lived in poverty for centuries. On Tuesday, he will visit blood-soaked Morelia in the state of Michoacán, where Bishop Vasco Vásquez de Quiroga stood fast as a defender of the Purépecha Indians in the first years after the Spanish conquest.
The pope’s last stop, on Wednesday in Ciudad Juárez on the border with Texas, is intended to counter the anti-immigrant messages that have driven the Republican presidential campaign in the United States.
“The borderline is a very powerful leitmotif of the Jesuits,” Father Henríquez said. They are “meant to be where nobody else wants to go.”