Morelia, Mexico — Speaking to young people in one of Mexico's most poor and violent cities -- where many face recruitment as hired killers for drug cartels -- Pope Francis on Tuesday railed against a society that he said leaves them without work, excluded from opportunity, and uses them only for "selfish purposes."
The pontiff also forcefully called on the youth to reject any effort to push them into violence, breathlessly declaring: "Jesus ... would never ask us to be hired killers!"
"He calls us to be disciples, friends!" Francis told tens of thousands of young people in a meeting Tuesday afternoon. "He would never send us out to death, but rather everything in him speaks of life."
"You are the wealth of this country," the pope told them. "When you doubt this, look to Jesus, he who destroys all efforts to make you useless or mere instruments of other people's ambitions."
Francis was speaking Tuesday in his second public event in Morelia, the capital of Mexico's central Michoacán state. Located about 200 miles west of Mexico City, Morelia has been living a dark period of violence, mainly stemming from fights for control of methamphetamine production.
The situation is so devastating that youth here are often recruited by drug cartels as sicarios, or hired assassins who kill for money. Once youth are part of a particular cartel structure it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave.
In his remarks, Francis decried a system that he said leaves young people without hope, feeling useless and unable to do anything with their lives. He also sharply criticized young desires for wealth or nicer things, saying they cannot buy happiness.
"The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that, either being present or absent, you make no difference," the pope told the youth. "This kills; this crushes us and opens the door to much suffering. "
"The principal threat to hope ... is to allow yourself to believe that you begin to be valuable when you start wearing the right clothes, the latest brands and fashions, or when you enjoy prestige, are important because you have money," he continued. "But in the depths of your heart you do not believe that you are worthy of kindness or love."
The pope then bluntly spoke to the young people of the sadness they feel daily in the killing of friends.
"I understand that often it is difficult to feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror," said Francis.
"It is hard to feel the wealth of a nation when there are no opportunities for dignified work, no possibilities for study or advancement, when you feel your rights are being trampled on, which then leads you to extreme situations," he continued.
"It is difficult to appreciate the value of a place when, because of your youth, you are used for selfish purposes, seduced by promises that end up being untrue," he said.
Crowds of young people packed Morelia's Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon Stadium in sunny, hot 80-degree weather to see the pope Tuesday. Before Francis arrived, the young people were cheering enthusiastically while waving small flags of different colors.
An announcer led the young people in chants of: "This is the pope's youth!"
After Francis arrived, a long procession of young people dressed in indigenous garments of red, blue, green, and gold wrapped around the stadium before presenting him with a number of gifts. Women in butterfly costumes flapped wings high in the air.
Beyond the tens of thousands in the stadium, some 50,000 watched the event in parking lots nearby through Jumbotron screens.
Francis was responding in his remarks Tuesday from testimonies given by several young people living in Morelia.
One young man identified himself as "one of the 30 million young people in Mexico who want to live in peace."
"Many of us study ... many work honestly to sustain our families," said the man, named Alberto. "We want to create a society of equality and respect."
"Some youth are trapped in desperation and settle for a life of greed and corruption and promises of an intense and easy life but outside the law," he said.
"The victims of drug trafficking, violence, addictions and exploitation of people are increasing," he continued. "Many families have only been able to mourn the loss of their children, because impunity has given wings to those who kidnap, extort and kill."
"Brother Francis, how can we become builders of peace?" he asked.
The pope told the young people to look to Jesus for hope.
"Hand in hand with Jesus Christ we can say: it is a lie that the only way to live as young people here is in poverty and exclusion; in the exclusion of opportunities, in the exclusion of spaces, in the exclusion of training and education, in the exclusion of hope," said the pontiff.
"It is Jesus Christ who refutes all attempts to render you useless or to be mere mercenaries of other people's ambitions," he said.
"You have asked me for a word of hope, and the one word I have to give you, is Jesus Christ," said Francis. "When everything seems too much, when it seems that the world is crashing down around you, embrace his Cross, draw close to him and please, never let go of his hand; please, never leave him."
"Holding the hand of Jesus I ask you to not let yourselves be excluded, do not allow yourselves to be devalued, do not let them treat you like a commodity," the pope pleaded.
"Of course, you may not be able to have the latest car model at the door, you will not have pockets filled with money, but you will have something that no one can take away from you, which is the experience of being loved, embraced and accompanied," he said.
Mentioning the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- that Mary appeared to a native Mexican in the 16th century and asked him to build a shrine to her -- Francis said God is asking young Mexicans today to continue to build a shrine.
"A shrine that is not a physical place but rather a community," said the pontiff. "A shrine called 'parish,' a shrine called, 'nation.'"
"Being a community, a family, and knowing that we are citizens is one of the best antidotes to all that threatens us, because it makes us feel that we are a part of the great family of God," said the pope.
Francis is visiting Mexico through Wednesday. He is staying each night in the capital of Mexico City, but traveling each day to different areas south, west, and north.
The pontiff will fly north Wednesday to the border city of Ciudad Juarez, on the other side of El Paso, Texas. The pope will visit a local penitentiary there and celebrate a public Mass just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Francis returns to Rome Wednesday evening.