MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Pope Francis kicks off his first trip to Mexico on Saturday with speeches to the country’s political and ecclesial elites, riding in on the success of his historic meeting in Cuba with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
During a three-hour stop in Havana on Friday, Francis embraced Patriarch Kirill and with an exclamation of “finally” took a momentous step toward closing a nearly 1,000-year schism in Christianity.
The two religious leaders signed a 30-point joint declaration of religious unity that committed their churches to overcoming their differences. Francis tweeted that the meeting was a “gift from God.”
Francis and Kirill also called for political leaders to act on the single most important issue of shared concern between the Catholic and Orthodox churches today: the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being killed and driven from their homes by the Islamic State group.
“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, entire families of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being exterminated, entire villages and cities,” the declaration said
Later aboard his plane, Francis said the declaration was not a political statement, but rather a pastoral one. It came from “two bishops who met and discussed their pastoral concerns,” he said.
The focus quickly shifted to Francis’ five-day Mexico visit, which will include a very personal prayer before the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine, the largest and most important Marian shrine in the world and one that is particularly important to the first Latin American pope.
As he flew toward Mexico City, Francis said his “most intimate desire” is to pray before the dark-skinned Madonna. She is the patron saint of Mexico and “empress of the Americas,” and millions of pilgrims flock each year to pray before the cloak that bears her image.
Francis arrived in Mexico’s capital to adoring crowds waving yellow handkerchiefs. Mariachis serenaded as his chartered plane pulled to a stop.
President Enrique Pena Nieto, suffering the lowest approval ratings of a Mexican leader in a quarter century, and his wife met Francis on a red carpet.
Onlookers roared as the three walked together, then the lights dimmed and the crowd waved lights as the official song composed for Francis’ visit played. Men in broad sombreros and women in flowing red skirts danced on the tarmac.
Faithful bundled against the evening chill lined up along the route to the Vatican ambassador’s residence to catch a glimpse of the pope in an open-air popemobile.
At one spot, people chanted in rhyming Spanish: “You see him, you feel him, the pope is present!” and “Francis, friend, the whole world loves you!”
Tania Vasquez came with her 6-year-old son, Carlos, and other relatives. She held a pennant with the colors of the Mexican flag and images of Francis, a dove and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“He’s coming to talk tough to us,” Vasquez said. “In Mexico there are a lot of economic and security problems, there is a lot of egoism, and he comes with a message of peace and hope that we need.”
At one point the motorcade paused when a man ran toward the popemobile, but he was detained by security officers before reaching it and the convoy moved on.
As the pope passed her, Mariana Dieguez was moved to tears and had difficulty speaking.
“I feel like my heart could jump from my chest. He comes to give us peace because we are living a difficult moment,” she said, alluding to a month-old grandson who was born ill.
On Saturday, Francis meets with Mexican officials and foreign ambassadors at the National Palace. The speech, which is a fixture of every papal trip, is usually the pope’s most political message, and Francis is expected to touch on some of the grave problems facing Mexico stemming from drug violence, migration and poverty.
On Friday, Francis expressed his sorrow to the archbishop of the northern city of Monterrey and asked that his deepest sympathies be conveyed to the families of 49 prison inmates killed in a riot one day earlier. The pope is scheduled to visit a prison in the border city of Juarez during his visit.
The pope also will speak to Mexico’s bishops at the Cathedral of the Assumption. He is expected to urge them to be close to their people and accompany them through their hardships, amid criticism even from within the Mexican clergy that many in the church here are often highly deferential to the wealthy and powerful.
Francis wraps up his day with a Mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a silent prayer before the icon.
According to tradition, the Virgin appeared before the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 at Tepeyac, a hillside near Mexico City where Aztecs worshipped a mother-goddess, and her image was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.
The image helped priests inculcate Catholicism among indigenous Mexicans during Spanish colonial rule, and the church later made her patron of all the Americas. Juan Diego was canonized as the hemisphere’s first Indian saint in 2002 during the papacy of John Paul II.
Associated Press writers Carlos Sanchez, Juan Zamorano and Jacobo Garcia contributed to this report.