MORELIA, Mexico -- Pope Francis urged Mexico's priests on Tuesday to fight injustice and not resign themselves to the drug-fueled violence and corruption around them, issuing a set of marching orders to shake up a Mexican church known for its cozy ties to the rich and powerful.
Francis traveled to a hotbed of Mexico's drug trade for a Mass with the country's priests and nuns. It was the first event of a daylong visit to Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state, that includes a meeting with young people, a fixture of papal trips that often produces some of the most memorable and spontaneous moments.
Francis' visit was also a symbolic vote of confidence for the city's archbishop, Alberto Suarez Inda. Like Francis, Suarez Inda has called for Mexican bishops to be closer to their people and not act like bureaucrats or princes. Last year Francis made him a cardinal — an unambiguous sign that Francis wants "peripheral" pastors like him at the helm of the church hierarchy.
In his homily, Francis admonished the priests and nuns to not become resigned to the problems around them or give in to paralysis, which he called the devil's "favorite weapon."
"What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again when faced with this reality, which seems to have become a permanent system?" Francis asked.
"I think we can sum it up in one word: resignation."
It was a clear reference to the situation in Michoacan, a major methamphetamine production hub, as well as the nation at large, where gangs and drug lords have thrived thanks in part to the complicity of police and other public authorities. That corruption came to light most recently in the case of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who escaped for a second time from a maximum security prison in July, and was recaptured after an October meeting with actor Sean Penn.
Rather than give up in the face of such corruption, Francis urged the clerics to look to the model of Vasco de Quiroga, a 16th-century Spanish bishop who came to New Spain and founded Utopian-style indigenous communities where agriculture and handicrafts were taught.
A Franciscan, he was affectionately known as "Tata Vasco," or "Father Vasco" in the Purepecha language.
Francis said that when Vasco de Quiroga saw Indians being "sold, humiliated and homeless in marketplaces" due to colonial exploitation, he did not resign himself to inaction but rather was inspired to fight injustice.
Since beginning his Mexico trip Friday night, Francis has repeatedly taken to task the Mexican church leadership, many of whom are closely linked to Mexico's political and financial elite and are loath to speak out on behalf of the poor and victims of social injustice.
"Sometimes the violence has made us give up, either out of discouragement, habit or fear," said Fausto Mendez, a 23-year-old seminarian who attended Tuesday's Mass. "That's why the pope comes to tell us not to be afraid to do the right thing."
On Saturday in Mexico City, Francis scolded what he called gossiping, career-minded and aloof clerics, and admonished them to stand by their flock and offer "prophetic courage" in facing down the drug trade. In an inscription in a seminary guestbook, he urged future priests to be pastors of God and not "clerics of the state."
"Although on Saturday he spoke strongly to the bishops, it was also directed at us," said Uriel Perez, 20-year-old seminarian at Tuesday's Mass. "Because the pope is demanding and he wants us to be prepared and on the streets shoulder to shoulder with our flock."
Suarez Inda clearly backs Francis' program, echoing the pope's admonition that "pastors should not be bureaucrats and we bishops should not have the mentality or attitude of princes."
In 2013, at what was perhaps the height of the violence in Michoacan, Suarez Inda led eight other bishops in signing an unusually outspoken letter accusing government authorities of "complicity, forced or willing," with criminal gangs. It urged priests to "do whatever is in your power" to help people in an atmosphere of kidnappings, killings and extortion and to "carry out concrete actions in favor of peace and reconciliation."
He has called for Mexico's church leaders to put aside their comfortable lives and become pastors with the "smell of their sheep." It's a famous phrase of the pope's about the need for bishops to accompany their flock closely through life's ups and downs.
The pope "shakes up the conscience of priests in order that we not be mediocre, installed priests who simply seek social promotion, but rather that we truly live our calling to serve the people with great generosity," Suarez Inda told the Mexican newspaper El Universal last month.
Suarez Inda was also part of a group of clergy from Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state who prepared a report on Mexico's drug violence last year that he said left Francis "very shocked and impressed."
Much of Michoacan is part of a region called Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Lands, known for both its blistering temperatures and brutal tactics by gangsters eager to control lucrative drug-production territory and smuggling routes.
By 2013, the pseudo-religious, evangelical-inspired Knights Templar cartel was widely kidnapping and extorting money and dominating the state's economic and political scene, so much so that local farmers took up arms against them. But the uprising by the vigilante-style "self-defense" forces brought little peace to the state, with the groups fighting among themselves even as new criminal gangs sprang up or tried to muscle their way into Michoacan.
"I'm excited about the pope's visit, but the reality is that people are afraid. Right now there is a festive atmosphere and a lot of police, but in the day-to-day it's not that calm. Crime has risen," said Yulisa Duran, an 18-year-old nursing student sitting with her boyfriend in Morelia's main square.
"I lived in a tiny town that was very gentle, and then the (cartel) came in," Duran added.
Francis wraps up his five-day visit on Wednesday by traveling to Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, for a cross-border Mass expected to focus heavily on the plight of migrants.
Winfield and Orsi reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.