Pope Francis greets large throngs in Mexico City – Los Angeles Times

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Pope Francis set out on his first full day in Mexico on Saturday with pomp and preaching, greeting thousands who lined city streets to see him and stopping to bless children in wheelchairs.

He will deliver messages to Mexico’s political and religious leadership, vowing not to spare criticism nor comfort, before leading a huge Mass later Saturday.

As dawn broke in the Mexican capital, throngs of papal well-wishers were headed toward the central square known as the Zocalo and, to the north, toward the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, two highly symbolic stops on the pope’s agenda.

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Many slept outdoors overnight in the hope of getting close to the pontiff, who was slated to say a Mass later in the afternoon at the basilica, dedicated to the patron saint of Mexico who is revered throughout the Americas.

Multitudes more staked out positions along the popemobile’s varied routes, as many of the capital’s major thoroughfares were closed. A holiday atmosphere prevailed.

As giant screens showed the pope’s motorcade headed toward the Zocalo, all the church bells in the area began to ring.

City officials set up stands handing out free breakfasts. About 65,000 tickets had been distributed to churches and other organizations for grandstand seats. But police were letting many people without tickets pass through to the giant square, where jumbo screens were set up close to the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral.

Among the many groups awaiting the pope was a contingent of Polish Catholics who wore fur hats and red robes emblazoned with crosses while handing out prayer cards and medallions of the Virgin Mary to passers-by. They hoisted a huge wooden cross aloft as they marched toward the central square.

The city mounted a massive clean-up in advance of the pope’s visit, scattering the many street vendors, but hawkers were back in force early Saturday with varied pope memorabilia — flags and key chains, necklaces and bracelets, all with likenesses of Francis, who as an Argentinian is the first pope to hail from the New World.

One hot-selling item: a flag that featured an image of the bespectacled pope and the Virgin of Guadalupe, flanking a Mexican flag. Vendors kept an eye out for police who were still cracking down on street sales.

“A friend brought down 13,000 of these flags from the United States to sell,” said one vendor, Dwey Davila, 24, who was selling tiny Vatican flags for the equivalent of about 75 cents apiece, cheaper in bulk. “Everyone in Mexico likes this pope. He’s very popular.”

Down the street, in front of the storied Palace of Fine Arts, hundreds of students and teachers — many with pope T-shirts and waving the flags of Mexico and the Vatican — were staking out positions along the pope’s planned route. Many wore handkerchiefs emblazoned with the gold of the Vatican flag.

“This is a pope who is very humble, who cares for the poor and working people,” said Jorge Martinez, 28, a teacher who led a group of more than 50 students from a high school. “All of our students are very enthusiastic to come and see him.”

A few feet away, Martin Macias Hernandez, 53, from the northern state of Zacatecas, wore a traditional full-brimmed, Mexican straw hat and was wrapped in a Mexican flag. He bore a sign urging the pope, “Don’t ever forget beautiful Mexico,” as he ambled through the gathering crowds.

“What attracts me about this pope is his simplicity, despite his exalted position,” said Macias, who said he works as a soccer referee and is also an amateur poet. “He seems like someone who cares about the people.”

Entire families were streaming toward the Zocalo, hoping not to miss the moment. It was a steady procession toward the heart of the city, the center of government, the site of the cathedral, and the former hub of the Aztec empire.

“What’s so important is that this pope can speak to us in our language,” said Marisela Rodriguez, who arrived here from Laredo, Texas, on a tour along with her sister, Guadalupe Gonzalez. “He can speak directly to us, he knows our sentiments, he is one of us, a Hispano. That makes a big difference.”

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The pair posed for a selfie alongside one of the old city’s venerable institutions, an organ grinder. Wearing tan suits, the grinders still methodically pump out upbeat tunes as colleagues pass caps to collect coins.

“This pope seems like a nice man,” said Adolfo Contreras, 46, an organ grinder downtown for eight years who allowed that he was a bit dismayed that so many people were scurrying by without dropping  coins in the cap. “I’m hoping this will be good for business,” Contreras added, as he played on amid the flow of humanity headed for the central square and the papal visit.

Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Liliana Nieto del Rio contributed to this report.

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Pope Francis greets large throngs in Mexico City – Los Angeles Times