CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 23, 2005 ( In a secular state it is the citizens who, in the exercise of their freedom, give a specific religious sense to social life, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope made that comment this morning when receiving Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, the new Mexican ambassador to the Holy See, who presented his credentials at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

In his address to the diplomat, the Holy Father acknowledged the benefit that has characterized the establishment in 1992 of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Mexico.

"This encourages one to continue working, from one's own autonomy and respective competencies, having as the priority objective the integral promotion of persons, who are citizens of the nation and, the great majority of them, children of the Catholic Church," said the Pontiff.

In this context, Benedict XVI reminded his audience that "a secular democratic state … protects the religious practice of its citizens, without preferences or rejections," and he underlined the Church's position, which emphasizes that "in modern and democratic societies there can be and must be full religious freedom."

Protecting freedom

The Holy Father stressed the duty of a modern state "to serve and protect the freedom of citizens and also the religious practice they choose," echoing what was expressed by the Mexican bishops in a communiqué last month: "It is not a question -- it has been said -- of a right of the Church as institution, it is a question of the human right of every person, village and nation."

Benedict XVI lamented the "growing secularism, which pretends to relegate the religious life of the citizens to the private sphere, without any social or public manifestation," a phenomenon before which "the Church knows very well that the Christian message reinforces and illuminates the basic principles of all coexistence."

Among these, the Pope mentioned "the sacred gift of life, the dignity of the person together with equality and the inviolability of his rights, the value of marriage and the family which cannot be given up or equated or confused with other forms of human unions."

The Bishop of Rome stressed that the family institution needs special support, because in Mexico, as in other countries, its vitality and fundamental role is being progressively undermined, not only by cultural changes, but also by the phenomenon of emigration, with the consequent and grave difficulties of different kinds, above all for women, children and youths."

Drugs trafficking

The Pope referred especially to the drugs traffic, pointing out that "one of the roots of the problem is the great economic inequality, which does not allow for the just development of a large part of the population, leading many young people to be the first victims of addictions, or attracting them with the seduction of easy money resulting from the drugs traffic and organized crime."

Hence the urgency that "all join forces to eradicate this evil through the diffusion of authentic human values and the building of a true culture of life," a task for which "the Church offers all her collaboration," said Benedict XVI.

The Holy Father also encouraged those in charge of public institutions "to favor, beginning from an effective equality of rights, the active participation of indigenous peoples in Mexico's march forward and progress, … a just and inalienable aspiration, the realization of which will be the foundation of peace, which must be the fruit of justice."

In view of the 2006 elections, Benedict XVI said that he hoped "the electoral process would contribute to continue to strengthen the democratic order, orienting it decisively toward the development of policies inspired in the common good and the integral promotion of all citizens, attending especially the weakest and most defenseless."

"Public activity in Mexico," he insisted, "must continue to be exercised as an effective service to the nation."