MEXICO CITY (CNS) — Members of the Mexican bishops’ conference broke bread with President Enrique Pena Nieto in a meeting meant to pitch the prelates on the presidential administration’s plans for re-establishing public trust and promoting prosperity in a country where nearly half the population is poor.

Auxiliary Bishop Eugenio Lira Rugarcia of Puebla, secretary-general of the Mexican bishops’ conference, described the discussion with the president and Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong March 10 as, “open,” and, “frank,” as the prelates spoke of issues causing concern for the faithful and citizens at large.

“We had an open dialogue with the president about topics that we perceive trouble society, such as insecurity, violence, poverty,” Bishop Lira told Catholic News Service.

“I believe that they understand that when we express people’s sentiments, we are not in any way trying to insult his efforts or be critical in an absurd way,” he said. “We’re trying express feelings (heard by priests) that he should take into account.”

The meeting, which included the country’s three cardinals and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio, arrived at a critical time for Pena Nieto, who has come under criticism for conflict of interest and corruption scandals and responding late to the kidnapping and presumed killing of 43 students in September.

The scandals sullied the international image of Mexico, which Pena Nieto has tried changing the last two years by promoting an agenda of structural reforms and trying to tamp down talk of insecurity in a country previously consumed by a counterattack against drug cartels and organized crime.

Mexico’s bishops have issued uncharacteristically critical comments on issues of insecurity since the election of Pope Francis and questioned Pena Nieto’s reform agenda — not standard practice in a country with a history of strained-church state relations — making the meeting more urgent for the president.

“(The meeting) is a strategy that the government of Enrique Pena Nieto once again win over church interest and sympathy,” said Bernardo Barranco, a former electoral official and longtime church observer. “There’s a distancing that the church has started to show due to the pope.”

Polls put Pena Nieto’s approval rating well below 50 percent, the lowest in 20 years for a Mexican president. A December survey by the Reforma newspaper rated the church as Mexico’s most trusted institution, surpassing the army — previously the leader — which saw its public perception tumble, along with the federal government, human rights commission, police and the media after the students’ disappearance.

Speaking with the Financial Times in early March, Pena Nieto said he understood the discontent in the country and acknowledged facing “incredulity and distrust.”

The president’s office said in a statement after the meeting at the president’s residence that Pena Nieto called on the bishops to “sow good cheer among Mexican families,” while saying that the government “will not give up” in the face of insecurity.

The statement identified several priorities including establishing the rule of law, combatting corruption, promoting macroeconomic stability and addressing regional inequalities as presidential priorities. Mostly Pena Nieto’s statement addressed reforms in areas such as energy, education and taxation, issues popular with investors though not the population at large.

The statement said that “in comparison with other emerging economies, Mexico finds itself in an optimal scenario.”

“It’s a like a medicine that doesn’t provide results in the next few hours,” but improves well-being over the long term, Bishop Lira said of how the president pitched his reforms. “They are interested in seeing that there is an improvement in the society’s living conditions.”

Church-state relations are solid, Bishop Lira said, despite any statements on social matters or insecurity by the church.

“There’s been a dialogue, at times it’s been somewhat fluid, sometimes terse, sometimes not so terse, but the important thing is that there has been a dialogue,” he said. “The president has committed his willingness to having this dialogue on a permanent basis.”