SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) — Pope Francis denounced the centuries-old exploitation and exclusion of Mexico's indigenous people Monday and prayed before the tomb of their controversial priestly protector during a visit heavy in symbolism to the rolling hills of southern Chiapas state.
Francis celebrated a Mass for Mexican Indians that featured readings in the native languages of Chiapas, a traditional dance of prayer and the participation of married indigenous deacons, whose ministry had been suspended by the Vatican but was revived under Francis.
The visit, at the halfway mark of Francis' five-day trip to Mexico, was of great personal importance for the pope.
He insisted on visiting San Cristobal de las Casas, where the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz ministered to Mexico's poorest and supported blending their indigenous culture into Catholic rituals, much to the dismay of Mexico's church hierarchy and occasionally the Vatican.
In his homily, Francis denounced how, "in a systematic and organized way," indigenous people have been misunderstood and excluded from society over the course of history.
"Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior," he said. "Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them."
He called for a collective "Forgive me."
"Today's world, ravaged as it is by a throwaway culture, needs you!" he told the crowd, which included many indigenous people, some in traditional dress, who gathered under clear skies at a sports complex in the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas.
The soft sounds of marimbas accompanied the Mass, which was celebrated in front of a replica of the brilliant yellow and red facade of San Cristobal's cathedral, where Francis visited later in the day.
At one point, Francis slipped behind the cathedral's altar where Ruiz's tomb is situated and emerged a few minutes later after a brief prayer, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Crowds chanted "Long live the pope of the poor!" and "Welcome, pope of the struggle!" as he arrived for the Mass. Some 500,000 faithful were expected to see the pope in the city, including about 100,000 who gathered on the stadium's dirt field.
The pope has frequently expressed admiration for indigenous peoples, and he issued a sweeping apology last year while in Bolivia for the Catholic Church's colonial-era crimes against America's indigenous.
He has also spoken out about the need to care for the environment.
As archbishop in Argentina, he was heavily responsible for a major document of the entire Latin American church hierarchy in which bishops praised the harmonious way indigenous people live with nature.
Indigenous communities have legal rights to much of Mexico's forest and desert lands and have long battled with outsiders to protect them — and to share in the revenues they produce.
Mining and commercial logging interests that were granted concessions by national or state governments long denuded or polluted indigenous lands.
Francis' visit to Chiapas and celebration of native culture was in many ways a swipe at the Mexican church hierarchy, which has long sought to downplay the local culture and bristled at the "Indian church," a mixture of Catholicism and indigenous culture that includes pine boughs, eggs and references to "God the Father and Mother."
It was a tradition that was embraced by Ruiz, who died in 2011 after some 40 years at the helm of the San Cristobal Diocese.
At the end of the Mass, Francis gave members of the indigenous community an official Vatican decree formalizing approval for another native language to be used at Mass.
The Vatican spokesman said approval for the main languages of Chiapas is still pending, but that the fact that Francis used them in a papal Mass was a sign that they could be used locally.
Chiapas is Mexico's poorest state. On Monday, the World Bank reported that indigenous people across Latin America continue to suffer from poverty and exclusion.
According to government statistics, while about 46 percent of Mexicans were living in poverty in 2014, the number in Chiapas is some 76 percent.