ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI denounced the drug-fueled violence wracking Mexico and urged Cubans to use dialogue to find new models to replace Marxism as he began a pilgrimage Friday that will take him to both countries.
Benedict spoke to reporters after breakfast aboard a special Alitalia flight carrying him to central Mexico later in the day. The pope said "idolatry of money" lies behind the violence that has claimed more than 47,000 lives in Mexico since a government crackdown began in 2006.
On Monday, Benedict will leave Mexico for Cuba, where he said that it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality," and he urged Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."
The comment about Marxism, in response to questions from a journalist, was as blunt as anything his predecessor, John Paul II, made during his groundbreaking 1998 trip to Cuba, though the earlier pope is widely credited with helping bring down socialism in eastern Europe.
Benedict cautioned that "this process requires patience and also decisiveness."
The journalist referred to reports that dissidents in Cuba are still routinely harassed and arrested, including in the weeks leading up to Benedict's visit.
Benedict said that the church wants "to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society, as we want in the whole world."
"We want to collaborate in this sense, and it's obvious that the church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion," the pope said.
Benedict said John Paul's visit to Cuba ushered in a slow process of dialogue and cooperation between church and state on the island.
During that trip, John Paul made a clear if cautious call for then-President Fidel Castro to open up Cuban society, take steady if gradual steps toward democracy and give the church a greater voice. He also called for the release of political prisoners while giving Castro what he wanted, a condemnation of the U.S. embargo.
Asked about Benedict's statement, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the government respects all opinions. "We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Our people have deep convictions developed over the course of our history," he said, adding that the Cuban system "is a democratic social project ... which is constantly perfecting itself."
Talking about Mexico, Benedict said that violence, and the lust for money, were destroying that predominantly Catholic country's young people in particular.
Benedict said that the "great responsibility of the church is to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask (from) the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind, and unmask the false promise, this lie that is behind" the drug culture.
The weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba, Benedict's first to both countries, will be a test of stamina for the pope, who turns 85 next month. At the airport on Friday in Rome, the pope used a cane, apparently for the first time in public, as he walked about 100 yards (meters) to the airliner's steps.
Papal aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benedict has been using the cane in private for about two months because it makes him feel more secure, not for any medical reason. Last fall, Benedict started using a wheeled platform to navigate the vast spaces of St. Peter's Basilica during ceremonies. The Vatican has said that device was employed to help the pope save his energy.
John Paul II was just 58 when he made the first of five visits to Mexico, building a passionate adoration among many Mexican Catholics.
So far Mexicans have shown less excitement about the new pope's arrival in Guanajuato, a deeply conservative state in sun-baked central Mexico,
The once-empty sidewalks along the pope's route into the state's largest city, Leon, begin to fill with hundreds of local church members Friday, more than six hours before the pontiff was scheduled to land in the country. Teenagers in matching white baseball caps screamed cheers in unison, while adults played tambourines and guitars on elevated platforms.
The main campground in Leon, meant for tens of thousands of pilgrims, remained empty, however. The only evidence of preparations were about a dozen portable toilets, a single police patrol and a group of three men and a woman putting a tent to sell T-shirts and photos of Benedict.
Church officials say as many as 300,000 people are expected for Sunday's Mass and Carlos Aguiar, president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, said he expected the faithful to begin arriving later Friday.
Benedict is visiting a church battling to overcome painful setbacks that include legalized abortion and gay marriage in the capital of the most populous Catholic country in the Spanish-speaking world.
Guanajuato's constitution declares that life begins at conception and bars abortion with extremely limited exceptions. Seven women were jailed there in 2010 for the deaths of their newborns and later released. The women said they had miscarriages, not abortions.
Benedict's church is encouraging more such laws across Mexico, and a measure before Congress would strip away many of the remaining restrictions on religion that were imposed during conflicts more than a century ago.
Church leaders also are trying to overcome a scandal over the most influential Mexican figure in the church.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ order, which John Paul II praised as a model of rectitude. But a series of investigations forced the order to acknowledge in 2010 that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children. Church documents released in a book this week reveal the Vatican had been told of Maciel's drug abuse and pederasty decades ago.
The biggest crowd in Guanajuato's main city Thursday evening appeared to be the thousands of youths attending a convention of evangelical Protestant missionaries a the highway exit leading to Bicentennial Park, where Benedict will deliver Mass on Sunday.
Light of the World Church spokesman Ezequiel Zamora said the convention had been planned long before the pope's visit was announced, and the evangelical church had no intention of trying to upstage the pontiff.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein, E. Eduardo Castillo and Dario Lopez-Mills in Leon, Mexico, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome.