MEDELLIN, Colombia — Pope Francis recalled the murderous past of this Colombian city once synonymous with drug cartel violence during a rain-soaked visit Saturday, lamenting the many lives lost to addiction and praying for dealers and traffickers to change their ways.
In a meeting in Medellin with priests, seminarians and nuns, Francis spoke of the “drug assassins” who converted Colombia’s second-largest city into the murder capital of the world during the heyday of the cocaine turf wars three decades ago.
Medellin “evokes for me the many young lives cut short, discarded and destroyed” by drugs, he said. “I invite you to remember and accompany this mournful procession and ask forgiveness for those who destroyed the dreams of so many young people.”
It was an unscripted, deeply personal moment for Francis, who has frequently denounced the scourge of drug trafficking. Before becoming pope, Francis was known for ministering to addicted youth in the slums of Buenos Aires.
Francis was tending to in-house church business on his penultimate day in Colombia, after spending the first half of his trip encouraging its fragile new peace process.
Heavy rain forced him into a last-minute change of plans to reach Medellin: Instead of taking a helicopter from the city’s international airport, Francis drove down the Andes, delaying by nearly an hour a Mass that drew as many as 1 million people.
Francis apologized to the crowd, thanking people for their “patience, perseverance and courage.” But neither the rain nor the delay seemed to dampen the spirits of the faithful who came out to see him, dressed in colorful plastic ponchos to guard against the drizzle.
They cheered wildly and waved white handkerchiefs and Colombian flags as Francis zipped around the grounds in his popemobile at an unusually fast clip to make up for lost time.
At the Mass, Francis urged Colombia’s conservative church to look beyond rigid rules and norms of doctrine, to go out and find sinners and minister to them.
“My brothers, the church is not a customs post,” he said.
“It is of the greatest importance that we who call ourselves disciples not cling to a certain style or to particular practices that cause us to be more like some Pharisees than like Jesus,” he said. Those in the early church who stuck so closely to the rules became “paralyzed by a rigorous interpretation and practice of that law,” he said.
Francis was even more emphatic hours later, telling clergy and lay missioners gathered at La Macarena bullring that it’s not enough to live a righteous life. Speaking in the Tango-inflected slang of his native Argentina, he urged them to “take your faith to the streets” and said a life of comfort and money are incompatible with the calling to serve God.
“Remember, the devil enters through the pocket,” he said.
Francis has frequently riled conservatives by criticizing their rigid interpretation of church norms, particularly in matters of sexual ethics and family life. He says such strict observation of norms is anathema to Jesus’ message of mercy and welcome to all, especially sinners.
His cautious opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion, for example, has sparked heated criticism from conservatives who say church teaching clearly forbids adulterous couples from receiving the sacraments.
In his homily, Francis said such “cold attachment to norms” might bring comfort and assurance to Catholics who need the security of laws, but it belies the Gospel-mandated call to help others who aren’t so perfect and need consolation.
“We cannot be Christians who continually put up ‘do not enter’ signs, nor can we consider that this space is mine or yours alone,” he said. “Everyone has a place, everyone is invited to find here, and among us, his or her nourishment.”
After the Mass, Francis went to a century-old orphanage for abandoned girls. There he heard from Claudia Garcia, 13, who told how before she could even speak she lost her entire family when a guerrilla unit raided her village on a deadly rampage. The only survivors were a handful of children ages 2 to 8.
On Sunday he heads to Cartagena to honor St. Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit who ministered to the tens of thousands of African slaves who arrived in the port to be sold. Francis returns to Rome on Sunday night.