Praying before a beloved statue of Mary in the northern city of Trujillo, Pope Francis has acknowledged the deep faith of Peruvians but also the serious problem of violence against women.
The statue of Our Lady of the Gate, or the Virgen de la Puerta, had been taken to Trujillo from a shrine in the town of Otuzco, in the Andean foothills, accompanied by dancers and musicians who have a special devotion to her.
At the Marian celebration, the Pope said the packed main plaza of this colonial city had been “transformed into an open-air sanctuary in which we all want to let our Mother look upon us with her maternal and tender gaze”.
He said Mary knew of the tears, laughter and longings of the people of northern Peru, and that the people knew she was a mother who would never abandon them.
His words came shortly after he visited a neighbourhood struck by landslides and flooding nearly a year ago, where people who lost their homes are still living in tents and precarious prefabricated wooden rooms.
Some 40 statues from shrines that are sites of popular devotions had been taken to Trujillo, first to the morning Mass site, then to the plaza.
Most date to colonial times, when Spanish missionaries established Christian shrines in places where people had traditionally worshipped. On their feast days, the shrines draw thousands of pilgrims in devotions that are both communal and very personal.
Naming some of the statues and their places of origin, Pope Francis said Mary and the saints “help us remain joyful in hope” and declared Our Lady of the Gate “the Mother of Mercy and Hope”.
The message resonated with residents who are still recovering from last year’s disaster.
“We’ve been waiting for so many hours, but with such joy, to see him and for him to bless us,” a woman who identified herself as Maribel said of the Pope. She was most touched by his urging “that we not lose our hope,” she said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Pope Francis had suggested to priests, religious and seminarians that young people entering religious life be encouraged to pray as their mothers and grandmothers had taught them at home.
He mentioned mothers and grandmothers again in the plaza, calling them “the true driving force of life and of the families of Peru” and “a bastion in the life of our cities”.
“Almost always in silence, they carry life forward,” he said. “It is the silence and strength of hope. Thank you for your witness.”
Echoing a theme he had mentioned the day before in the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado, the Pope decried violence against women, which is widespread in Latin America.
He asked his listeners to fight the “scourge” of “femicide,” or murders of women simply because they are women, usually perpetrated by men. Studies have shown that about 100 women are killed in such cases in Peru every year, and 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to UN statistics.
Pope Francis also urged his listeners to combat “the many situations of violence that are kept quiet behind so many walls” by “calling for legislation and a culture that repudiates every form of violence”.
Besides speaking out for justice, the Pope called on his listeners to imitate Mary in compassion. “For there is no better medicine to cure many wounds than a heart that is compassionate before sorrow and misfortune, a heart compassionate [about] people’s mistakes and their desire to change,” even when they do not know where to start.