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.
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.
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.
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.”