MEXICO CITY — Cesar Cruz Coello experienced much of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit the way most of his compatriots did — on TV. The florist watched the Holy Father interact with kids at the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital between customers Feb. 14.

Valentine’s Day is a busy day for florists everywhere.

“He’s a human pope, humble. But through his humility, he expresses his greatness,” Coello told The Tidings. “He comes to us during a very trying time in our nation.”

Drug and human trafficking are common in the Latin American nation. Studies indicate that more than 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — more than 50 million.

“People speak of misery, poverty and drug trafficking, but that’s not Mexico,” Coello said. “We believe in the Lord and that faith should carry us forward. We are a good people, a people who work.”

Pope Francis travelled to various parts of Mexico during his Feb. 12-17 visit. In Mexico City, he met government officials and the Mexican bishops. In Chiapas, he celebrated Mass and met with indigenous Catholics. In Morelia, he met with young people. In Ciudad Juarez, he visited a prison and celebrated Mass on the border.

In each of his addresses he was guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose shrine he visited on his first full day in Mexico City.

The Blessed Mother appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531 and asked that a church be built in her honor on the hill of Tepeyac.

“St. Juan Diego went to see the bishop and the bishop didn’t believe him because he belonged to a lower class, because he didn’t speak Spanish very well, he wasn’t educated, he didn’t have any influence,” said Father Manuel Dorantes, who works for the Vatican’s press office. “He was a lowly person in terms of all the measures of the world. And he faces Our Lady and says, ‘Please, send somebody else.’”

Juan Diego begged her, Father Dorantes said, describing himself with a long list of adjectives in his native Nahuatl language. “I’m nothing more than a ladder of sticks, I’m a tail, I’m a common person.”

“Our Lady says to him, ‘Understand, Juan Diego, I have found you to be very pleasing before my eyes. And I want you to be the messenger,’” Father Dorantes said.

As proof of her request, she arranged Castilian roses in St. Juan Diego’s tilma. When Juan Diego brought the roses to the bishop, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was revealed on his garment.

“The Holy Father is coming to visit the Juan Diegos of Mexican society of 2016,” Father Dorantes explained. “He will say to them, ‘The Lord is pleased in you and you be the messengers of the Gospel, of hope, of justice for Mexican society.’” 

The Church of the peripheries

It’s a message welcomed by Miguel Angel Salgado, a young taxi driver who works nights in Mexico City.

“It feels cool, it feels beautiful that a pope would come to this nation,” he said. Salgado said he was a Catholic, but not one who goes to Mass every Sunday.

Salgado works nights. You can make more at night, he says, because there’s less traffic.

When he gets home at 5 a.m., he takes a short nap before taking his 6-year-old daughter to school. He takes another short nap before picking her up at 1 p.m. He spends the afternoon with her before leaving for work again at 5 p.m.

He’s been robbed at gunpoint three times in the five years he’s spent driving a cab. Once, they stole his car. When he got it back, the thieves had taken the tires.

Salgado lives in Ecatepec, the shantytown where Pope Francis celebrated Mass for more than 300,000 on Feb. 14 at the Ecatepec Study Center. It’s a crime-ridden town, high in pollution and poverty. Drainage of a canal in the area revealed hundreds of human bones and the remains of five men and 16 young women, Vatican Radio reports.

Women are often forced into prostitution, and when they refuse, their faces are disfigured with acid or they disappear.

“How often we experience in our own lives, or in our own families, among our friends or neighbors, the pain which arises when the dignity we carry within is not recognized,” the pope said in his homily.

“How many times have we had to cry and regret on realizing that we have not acknowledged this dignity in others?” he added. “How often — and it pains me to say it — have we been blind and impervious in failing to recognize our own and others’ dignity?”

But Pope Francis left a message of hope, referring to the fragrance left by Our Lady of Guadalupe, “who has always gone before us in love.”

“I invite you once again today to be on the front line, to be first in all the initiatives which help make this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities,” he said, “where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work, no need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”

The Holy Father came to Mexico to bring joy, to comfort and to inspire hope, according to Father José Felix García Benavente, a professor at the Pontifical University of Mexico.

In the locations he chose to visit — Ecatepec, Chiapas, Morelia, Ciudad Juarez — are the places where the marginalized have lived historically in Mexico.

In Juarez, Pope Francis concelebrated Mass with Archbishop José H. Gomez and several other bishops. More than 25,000 have disappeared in Mexico, Father García Benavente explained, many of them women who had been sex slaves in Ciudad Juarez.

“He’s making the peripheries the center of catechesis,” he said. “The Church must go to the peripheries.”

The Holy Father met with young people Feb. 16 at the José María Morelos y Pavón Stadium in Morelia, a city known for having Mexico’s highest rate of kidnapping. The capital of the state of Michoacan, Morelia is where the Mexican government launched its war on drugs.

The Mexican military presence, which began in 2006 under President Enrique Calderon, was intended to resolve tensions between drug cartels, an escalating number of robberies and the prevalence of methamphetamine labs. Results have been mixed.

“In Morelia there are all those families that have been affected by violence. Often when people lose people to violence they find it very hard to forgive,” Father Dorantes said. “But the Holy Father is saying to the families, ‘You can show us the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. You can show us the way to justice.’”

The indigenous people in Chiapas are a community that has often been excluded in Mexico, according to Father Dorantes, a native of Estado de México.

“There’s something very wrong in Mexican society when it’s generally accepted that, unless you’re born in the city, the only way to get ahead is to go north,” he said.

“It’s not enough to chastise people or give admonitions, we need to do something. Why? Because we’re all sons and daughters of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Father Dorantes added.

La Cristiada

On Feb. 13, President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed Pope Francis in the National Palace. While Mexico had received six previous visits from popes, five from St. John Paul II and one from Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis was the first to be invited to the National Palace.

President Peña Nieto, along with former President Felipe Calderon, also attended the Mass celebrated by the pope at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe later that day.

The next day, secular media called President Pe√±a Nieto “the pope’s altar boy,” and feared the government was handing the keys to the nation over to the Vatican, Father Dorantes noted.

“It reminded me, seeing all those stories in the paper, that it’s still not quite there yet,” he said.

After the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, the government confiscated Church land that had been used for schools and hospitals. While it wasn’t the first time the Mexican government had taken away Church property, this time it was part of a larger anti-Catholic effort against the Church’s influence in Mexican society.

In 1926, President Elias Plutarco Calles enforced the anti-clerical laws spelled out in the 1917 Constitution. These laws prohibited the celebration of Mass, but many Catholic priests didn’t cooperate.

“Calles basically asked people, ‘Are you going to be Mexican first or Catholic first?’” Father Dorantes said. “And Mexican Catholics chose and they paid for it with blood for having chosen to be Catholic.” 

Government agents, enforcing the laws, burned churches, harassed nuns and murdered countless Catholics. More than 250,000 faithful died during “La Cristiada,” the war for religious liberty that ended in 1929.

The welcoming of Pope Francis in the National Palace is a “watershed moment,” Father Dorantes said. “The pope is someone who has been doubted by the Mexican government for decades.”

The Holy Father met with Jesuits from Mexico Feb. 14. The Jesuits gave him a relic of Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro, a priest who was shot for celebrating Mass during La Cristiada.

His final words before being publicly executed were the rallying cry of the Cristeros, “¬°Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”) The words themselves defied the Calles laws while affirming the primacy of Christ.

‘La Morenita’ 

Moments after an announcement asked for everyone to remain seated before the papal Mass began at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a man shouted,“¬°Qué viva Cristo Rey! ¬°Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! ¬°Que viva el papa!” The crowd booed a video message from the basilica that interrupted the livestream of the pope in his popemobile.

Delia de Ada, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, had a pretty good seat. She sat next to her friend and fellow parishioner Silvia Baca just outside the sanctuary, with a view of the pope and St. Juan Diego’s tilma. The pair left their hotel room at 7 a.m. for the 5 p.m. Mass.

“Outside it was one huge yell. I even squealed like a teenage girl. The elation was awesome,” de Ada said of when the pope finally arrived at the basilica plaza. “We were all crying and yelling and happy to be there.”

Ofelia Neri, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Montebello, came to Mexico City to be there with the pope and pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I hope to gain greater motivation to live out the Jubilee Year of Mercy,” she said. Neri saw Pope Francis during his trip to the United States, but felt called to be in Mexico for the Holy Father’s visit there.

More than 12,000 gathered inside the basilica for the papal Mass, while 30,000 participated from the plaza outside. An estimated 20 million pilgrims visit the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year.

This year, Pope Francis is one of them. He said he came to Mexico as a “missionary and a pilgrim,” to “see and be seen” by Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“God came close and still comes close to the suffering but resilient hearts of so many mothers, fathers and grandparents who have seen their children leaving, becoming lost or even being taken by criminals,” the pope said in his homily.

“God’s shrine is the life of his children, of everyone in whatever condition, especially of young people without a future who are exposed to endless painful and risky situations, and the elderly who are unacknowledged, forgotten and out of sight,” he said.

After the homily, the pope asked all to join him in sitting quietly before the Blessed Mother in prayer. More than 40,000 — who had danced and shouted at his arrival — fell into utter, still silence.

At the conclusion of Mass, the Holy Father — who had asked the Mexican people for permission to pray privately before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe — walked up into a small room behind the altar, directly behind where the image is usually on display.

 Francis sat in private prayer before the image for 28 minutes, according to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson. The pope brought the Blessed Mother yellow flowers.

Bringing the message to the people

“He brought this message of Guadalupe to these people who feel excluded, who feel they’re not good enough, who feel they cannot participate, who have nothing to offer,” Father Dorantes said. “He told them, ‘The Lord will create a new society, he will make all things new through you.’”

Guadalupe Tostado Garafe waited on Paseo de la Reforma for Pope Francis to drive by in his popemobile. Millions are estimated to have seen the pope in this way during the apostolic visit to Mexico.

“We believe in Jesus Christ and in the Virgin Mary,” she said. “The pope is the representative of our faith. And he is welcome here. This is his home.”

Nearby, Fernando Gutierrez held his 3-year-old daughter Fernanda in his arms. He said he came so that the pope would cover his family with his blessing.

“During this time of crisis, the pope’s visit is a moment of unity,” he said. “With faith, we can all get through this.”