RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Pope Francis warned Latin America against legalizing drugs on Wednesday, delving into a hot topic in his home region after celebrating the first public mass of his landmark visit to Brazil.
The Argentine-born pontiff, who has championed the cause of the poor and vulnerable, drew a line against drugs as he met crack addicts and inaugurated a rehab ward at a Rio de Janeiro hospital run by Franciscan monks.
“The scourge of drug trafficking, which favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage,” Francis said as rain fell on the Saint Francis hospital.
“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” he said on the third day of his weeklong trip to Brazil for a Catholic youth festival.
Hours earlier, Latin America’s first pope urged Catholics to reject the “ephemeral idols” of money, power and success as he led mass at a revered shrine in neighboring São Paulo state.
Drug violence has killed more than 70,000 people in Mexico alone since 2006 while narcotrafficking continues unabated across the region, fueling calls for a rethink of the U.S.-backed war on drugs.
Guatemala’s president has called for the legalization of drugs, a vision shared by ex-presidents in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia but opposed by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has proposed legalizing marijuana in his country.
But the pope said society must fight the underlying problems of drug use by “promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future.”
The 76-year-old pope visited the hospital after flying back from a mass at the Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida in São Paulo state, where more than 200,000 people braved the cold rain to greet him.
After entering the basilica, the visibly moved pope held a statue of the dark-skinned Virgin of Aparecida, the country’s patroness whom Francis himself reveres.
“It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure,” he said in his homily.
“Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”
The pope is seeking to re-energize his flock during his first overseas trip since his election earlier this year.
The region is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but Brazil has seen its flock dwindle while Evangelicals gain ground.
The church’s pedophilia and financial scandals have also alienated many Catholics.
It was in Aparecida in 2007 that the then-cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio led a bishops’ panel that drafted a document with a strong social and political appeal for the poor in Latin America.
An estimated 15,000 people packed the basilica for Wednesday’s mass while another 200,000 gathered outside, with 5,000 police and soldiers providing security.
Last Sunday, authorities found and destroyed a homemade explosive in a parking lot bathroom, but the Vatican said it was no cause for concern.
After the mass, the pope stepped out to bless the crowd and announced he would return in 2017 on the 300th anniversary of the statue’s discovery by three local fishermen.
“We want Francis’s example to bring renewal to the Church, which sorely needs it,” said 47-year-old José Antonio Rocha, who stood for hours outside to see the pope pass by in a Popemobile.
The pope’s visit to Aparecida went smoothly after a tumultuous start to his trip.
His arrival on Monday saw crowds swarm his car and touch him. Later that night, police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of people protesting the $53 million spent on his visit.
Then, on Tuesday, Rio’s subway broke down for two hours, causing chaos for throngs of pilgrims heading to a mass inaugurating the weeklong World Youth Day festivities.
On Thursday, the pope will visit a slum and then address hundreds of thousands of young Catholics on Copacabana beach.