RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Pope Francis took an unequivocal stand on Wednesday against legalization as a means to fight drug addiction and criticized the trend in Latin America to decriminalize narcotics.
In his first public address on the issue, the new pontiff said during visit to a Rio de Janeiro hospital run by Franciscan monks that education was the way to end drug use.
“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,” Francis said.
Some prominent Latin American leaders are moving towards support for the decriminalization of drugs after decades of violence generated by the unsuccessful war on drug trafficking cartels in the region, the source of the world’s cocaine.
Thousands of well-wishers lined the streets in the rain to see Francis arrive at the hospital where he opened a wing that will treat alcoholics and drugs addicts.
The pope received another rapturous welcome earlier in the day at the country’s main religious shrine where he urged young people to shun the “ephemeral idols” of money and pleasure and cherish traditional values to help build a better world.
On the third day of his week-long visit for World Youth Day, a biennial Church gathering being celebrated in Rio, Francis landed by helicopter in Aparecida, a shrine of the Virgin Mary that is venerated as the patroness of Brazil, home to the biggest Roman Catholic population in the world.
The shrine 260 kilometers (161 miles) west of Rio is also the site where Francis, then a cardinal in Argentina, cemented his place as a leader of the Church during a 2007 conference attended by Pope Benedict XVI.
The World Youth Day events, which are expected to attract more than 1 million people from around the world, are an effort by the Vatican to galvanize young Catholics at a time when rival denominations, secularism and distaste over sexual and financial scandals continue to lead some faithful to abandon the Church.
Security around the pope on Wednesday appeared much more organized than upon his Monday arrival in Rio, where adoring crowds at one point surrounded his car.
In Aparecida, where tens of thousands gathered for the pope’s first public mass of the visit, Francis rode in a white popemobile with open sides and a transparent top. Security squads kept the vehicle safely within barriers behind which tens of thousands of ecstatic faithful cheered, sang and waved flags.
The pope’s desire to remain simple and close to his flock has complicated security around his visit, especially after he used a modest Fiat hatchback for his ride into Rio from the airport.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Vatican and Brazilian officials held what he called “a routine meeting” to discuss how the trip was going and made one change - that Francis would ride in a closed car from Rio airport to the hospital on his return from Aparecida.
“Benedict was holy, an intellectual, rational man. But Francis is familiar, close. We feel like he is one of us. He’s like the pope next door,” said Friar Leonardo Pintu, standing in the rain outside the hospital.
At the indoor mass in Aparecida, one of Latin America’s most popular pilgrimage sites, Francis urged worshippers to embody the faith of their ancestors and trust in God.
In his sermon, the 76-year-old pope warned the youth of his continent to avoid the snares of modern life.
“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 Portuguese.
“Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols,” he said, speaking from a modern marble pulpit.
The pope’s message of humility and rejection of the luxurious trappings of the papacy have endeared him to many Catholics and his first trip abroad has proved to be another boom to his image.
At the end of the Mass, as worshippers chanted, “Francisco, Francisco, Francisco,” he walked around the basilica and comforted sick people in wheelchairs. He hugged several people, apparently old friends.
He later joked with the crowd outside, asking their permission to speak Spanish instead of “Brazilian” and led the crowd, as he held the statue of the Virgin, in a prayer.
More than 5,000 police and other security officials were on hand in Aparecida, where young pilgrims, many draped in the flags of Brazil, Argentina and other countries, endured rain and unseasonably low temperatures to ensure spots for the service, which most had to follow from outside the massive basilica.
“I got here with my family at 2 in the morning,” said Antonio Carlos da Silva, a drenched prison guard from Sao Paulo. “I am so happy to come and see the pope.”
Aparecida is the place where Francis, then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, authored an influential statement during Benedict’s visit that espoused many of the same values he has placed front and center during his five months as pope. The document called on the Church to return to the principles of humility and charity.
Francis will visit a Rio slum on Thursday, preside over services on Copacabana beach on Friday and give mass at a pasture outside the city on Sunday, his last day in Brazil.
Editing by Paulo Prada, Anthony Boadle and Cynthia Osterman