Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico for first visit

LEON, Mexico

A crowd waving Vatican and Mexican flags greeted the Pope as he arrived. President Felipe Calderon and his wife met the Pope on the tarmac at the airport in Silao.

"Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican," people shouted from the crowd.

He descended the stairs without the cane he had used when he walked to the plane in Rome, the first time he used it in public.

The excitement was palpable Friday. The people of Guanajuato, young and old, were thrilled and honored by the papal visit to their state, where 95 percent of residents are Catholic faithful.

"The feeling of that door opening and the Pope coming out, it was so overwhelming," said Javier Bravo of Mexico City.

Authorities estimate a million people will line the main road from the airport to the town of Leon and then flock to Bicentennial Park for the Pope's mass on Sunday.

But Friday, it was all about the Pontiff's arrival. Some 600 welcome banners flew proudly along the 20-mile route of the Pope's procession and throughout the city.

In the midst of the excitement, there was a heavy police presence along the procession route, where a number of vehicle checkpoints were scattered earlier in the day. But the crowds seemed oblivious to the armed soldiers.

Earlier in the day, the Pope called on Mexicans to conquer an "idolatry of money" that feeds drug violence. In Mexico, Benedict said, violence is destroying the nation's young.

The "great responsibility of the church is to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask (from) the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind, and unmask the false promise, this lie that is behind" the drug culture, he said.

"That is a big issue right now with the Mexican people," said Father Benjamin Clariond. "Because we are suffering from the consequences of the violence and the drug cartels."

Pope Benedict's denouncement of violence in the country and his message of hope may be exactly what the country needs to renew its faith.

The Pope was scheduled to visit Cuba Monday to call on that country to give up on Marxism. The trip will be his first visit to that country as well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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