SILAO, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI capped off his three-day visit to central Mexico with an open air Mass attended by a crowd of 640,000 Catholics.
"We've never had this opportunity," said a tearful Anastasia Monive Mena, 50, as she walked with her husband, children and grandchildren to see the pope.
Entire families walked miles to the Sunday service after security forces shut down roads leading to Bicentennial Park in Silao.
A few arrived by bus.
One group rode in on horseback dressed in charro costumes.
The faithful came from all parts of Mexico. Antonio Munoz, 21, a Guanjuato resident, was sorry his relatives in Fort Worth could not share the moment. He planned to post video of the experience on Facebook or via Twitter, “So they can feel like they are here too,” Munoz said.
Vendors catered to the crowd selling rosaries, Pope Benedict T-shirts, and small flags.
One man pushed a cart piled high with breakfast tacos.
A woman offered her special sweet bread decorated to say “Viva el Papa” — " long live the pope."
The mass attracted not just humble pilgrims, but some of the most powerful people in Mexico, including President Felipe Calderon, the three presidential candidates, and Carlos Slim, the man who topped Forbes magazine’s list of the world's wealthiest people.
The Pope prayed for peace, harmony and justice in Mexico and from the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s Madonna, as citizens cope with poverty, corruption and violence.
In addition to his large public appearances, Pope Benedict XVI held a small private meeting with eight victims of violent crime, including Maria Guadalupe Davila. Her teenage son Rodrigo Cadena was among the 13 student athletes killed in the Juarez birthday party massacre. President Calderon’s office said he requested the meeting on behalf of the families.
The Pope arrived at the Mass via helicopter after flying over a sacred shrine, the Christ on the Mountain known on the Cubilete del Cerro. It’s a monument to Catholics who were persecuted and killed by the Mexican government in the 1920s during the Cristero War.
“This chapter is about the fight with their lives that Mexican Cristeros in this part of the nation did to promote freedom of religion and reopen churches that were closed by the government," said former President Fox, who is a native of the region, and who built his presidential library Centro Fox here.
Fox also attended the Sunday Mass in Silao.
Just down the road, an evangelical group held a large tent revival under a sign that read, "We’re not all Catholics." The “Luz del Mundo” church timed their competing gathering to coincide with the Pope’s visit.
But no matter their faith, many in Mexico share a common prayer, said Erica Mendoza, a 20-year-old Catholic whose grandparents live in Arlington, Texas.
“We need peace,” she said simply.