During his apostolic visit to his native land, the Holy Father urges the faithful to trust in Christ
On July 10, for the final stop of his trip to Bolivia — part of his wider apostolic visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay from July 5-12 — Pope Francis met with prisoners at a rehabilitation center in Santa Cruz. For Pope Francis, it was an intense moment as he spoke to the thousands of inmates about the need to remember hope in Jesus Christ. “When Jesus becomes part of our lives,” he said, “we can no longer remain imprisoned by our past. Instead, we begin to look to the present, and we see it differently, with a different kind of hope. We begin to see ourselves and our lives in a different light. We are no longer stuck in the past, but capable of shedding tears and finding in them the strength to make a new start.”
It was a message for prisoners, but it was also one for the whole of South America. Pope Francis’ visit to his native continent — the first since his brief 2013 trip to Brazil for World Youth Day — was more than a homecoming, emotional and raucous as it was. It was a visit by the first Latin American pontiff to a continent that now claims 40 percent of the global Catholic population and has a median age of 27 (Africa is 20 and Europe is 39).
Still dealing with a past marked by painful colonial rule, bloody civil wars and conflicts and harshly uneven efforts to establish stable democracies and a present plagued by economic inequality, endemic poverty and crude Leftist populism, South America welcomed back the pope with open arms and an eagerness to hear his prophetic words of encouragement but also his plain-speaking pastoral advice. He did not disappoint.
For Pope Francis, the theme of the trip was integral ecology, the heart of his newest encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), with three dominant features: the poor, the family and the common good. Unquestionably, Laudato Si’ has become the touchstone for virtually all of his homilies and speeches.
All three countries visited struggle with heartbreaking poverty and unequal distribution of wealth and resources. Pope Francis spoke often about the needs of the poor while noting that the most fundamental part of helping those in need involves the way we see them. “To really help them,” he said in the capital city of Asunción, Paraguay, “the first thing is for us to be truly concerned for their persons, valuing them for their goodness.” That goodness was expressed in true Francis style by his unscheduled moments with the suffering and the marginalized that gave more powerful expression of God’s mercy than words could ever convey. In Paraguay, he also made a surprise stop at the St. Rafael Foundation, a large center for poor patients with AIDS, cancer, abandoned and abused children and the elderly.
Stopping at the Banado Norte slum in Asunción, Pope Francis used the setting of the Holy Family parish to praise families in the midst of horrendous economic conditions. “Your struggles have not taken away your laughter, your joy and your hope,” he said. The words echoed the pope’s pleas for families throughout the entire papal visit, lamenting the toxic brew of domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest and the abandonment of the elderly and children. “These problems,” Pope Francis noted in Bolivia, “often meet with pseudo-solutions which are not healthy for the family, but which show the clear effects of an ideological colonization.”
But the family is also the role model for Pope Francis’ vision for the common good of society as a whole. In Ecuador, Pope Francis observed, “In families, everyone contributes to the common purpose, everyone works for the common good, not denying each person’s individuality but encouraging and supporting it. ... That is what it means to be a family! If only we could view our political opponents or neighbors in the same way we view our children or our spouse, mother or father!”
In countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the common good often remains elusive. The rights of indigenous peoples are a chronic concern, as are environmental degradation, political corruption, judicial inequality and growing problems of consumerism, materialism and secularism. Pope Francis bluntly called corruption by government officials “gangrene” and referred to the unfettered pursuit of money and economic exploitation as “the dung of the devil” (borrowing a line from the fourth century Doctor of the Church, St. Basil of Caesarea) that is poisoning the environment and blocking true human development.
No Marxist himself, Pope Francis also had to contend with left-leaning populist governments such as that of Evo Morales of Bolivia, president since 2006. A self-proclaimed Catholic, Morales is also an ardent leftist who has worked to reduce the influence of the Church in culture. In a gesture that sparked media frenzy, Morales gave Pope Francis a gift that combined a crucifix with the hammer and sickle, the two traditional symbols of Marxist revolution. Originally designed by a Jesuit priest, Father Luis Espinal Camps, who was murdered in 1980 by the Bolivian regime, it was supposed to be a symbol of dialogue between Christianity and communism. Despite reports that Pope Francis was not happy with the gift, he said during his in-flight interview on his way back to Rome that he “was not offended by it.”
Role of the Church
As the Church in South America is facing hostile left-leaning governments, especially in Venezuela, Pope Francis declared upon arrival in Bolivia that he had come to affirm the faith of believers. “Religious freedom,” Pope Francis told Morales and civic leaders in La Paz Cathedral, “reminds us that faith cannot be restricted to a purely subjective experience. It is not a subculture. The challenge for us will be to help foster the growth of spirituality and commitment of the faith, of Christian commitment in social projects, in deepening the common good.”
Even as he stressed the role of the Church in achieving the common good, he apologized for the historical failings of some of her leaders in South America.
He said in Bolivia, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America. ... There was sin, a great deal of it, for which we did not ask pardon. So for this, we ask forgiveness, I ask forgiveness.”
Pope Francis returns to Rome for some rest before setting out in September for his much-awaited trip to the United States. In South America, he called for change through global interdependence and a “globalization of hope” that replaces “the globalization of exclusion and indifference!” His trip to North America will almost certainly bring his demand for the wealthiest country on earth to do its part.