A week of lessons

Pope Francis’ South American homecoming overflowed with memorable ideas and images, writes Greg Daly

Anyone expecting fireworks at Pope Francis’ inflight press conference following his trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay will have been disappointed at its uncharacteristically sedate nature, but they shouldn’t have been surprised: the Pope was coming home after an extraordinarily busy week, during which he had any number of opportunities to say what was on his mind.

Following his arrival in Ecuador and his first full day in the country, Tuesday saw the Holy Father meeting Ecuador’s bishops and speaking on the theme of unity and evangelisation when celebrating Mass in the Congress Centre of the city’s Bicentenary Park.

“There was no shortage of conviction or strength in that cry for freedom which arose a little more than two hundred years ago,” the Pontiff said, recalling how the park had been named in honour of the bicentenary of August 10, 1809, when a group of leading figures in Quito issued the first Latin American appeal for independence from Spain.

“But history tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside, together with the desire for power and the inability to appreciate other movements of liberation which were different yet not thereby opposed,” he continued.

Unity, Pope Francis explained, can be “an act of mission”, an evangelising act that binds Christians together in love as they seek to show and share the love they worship. “The more intense the communion between us, the more effective our mission becomes,” he said. 


The rest of that day was devoted to meetings with representatives of schools and universities and with members of civil society, before the Pope privately visited la Compañía, Quito’s ornate Jesuit church. The next morning saw the Holy Father visiting the Rest Home of the Missionaries of Charity, before addressing clergy, religious and seminarians at Ecuador’s national Marian shrine of Our Lady of Quinche.

Putting aside his prepared text, advising those gathered that they could read it later, the Holy Father considered what it meant that Mary was the first disciple of Jesus, conscious always of the gratuitousness of God. He asked all those gathered to think back to when they were first gratuitously chosen by God. Nobody, he said, is worthy to enter religious or consecrated life, and priests and religious must always remember God’s gratuitousness.

Warning them against forgetting this and their own roots, he said: “Permit me as a brother to offer you some advice: every day, perhaps night time is better, before going to sleep, look at Jesus and say to him: ‘All you have given me is a free gift’, and then go back to what you were doing. As a result, then, when I am asked to move or when there is some difficulty, I do not complain, because everything is a free gift, I merit nothing.”

Flying to Bolivia later that day, Pope Francis spent just a few hours in La Paz, conscious of the risk of altitude sickness in the world’s highest administrative capital

After a brief address at El Alto airport he visited the spot where the body of the murdered Jesuit Fr Luis Espinal Camps was found on March 22, 1980, a day after the priest, who had lived alongside the families of miners during their struggle under the dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza, was arrested by government-backed paramilitaries. Stopping on the Chacaltaya highway, Pope Francis said he was there to remember a brother who had preached the Gospel and been killed by those who that Gospel had troubled.

For all that the Holy Father had prayed in silence for Fr Espinal he seemed baffled – even troubled – when he met with President Evo Morales at the presidential palace and was presented with medals and a replica of a crucifix Fr Espinal had owned, with an effigy of Jesus being affixed to a wooden ‘hammer and sickle’. On being given the crucifix, the Pope appeared to frown and say “No está bien eso”, meaning, “That’s not right”, although it was later established that he had said instead said “No sabía eso” – “I didn’t know that” – in response to President Morales’ explanation.

Meeting representatives of the civil authorities at the city’s cathedral, where he described faith as “a light which does not blind or confuse, but one which illuminates and respectfully guides the consciences and history of every person and society”, Pope Francis said Christians are called to be a leaven within society, and reminded the assembled officials that “religious freedom – a phrase we often encounter in civil discourse – also reminds us that faith cannot be restricted to a purely subjective experience”.

After spending the night at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the Pontiff celebrated Mass on Thursday morning in the square of Christ the Redeemer, bemusing some onlookers in advance of the Mass by using a nearby Burger King as a vestry.


Preaching on the Feeding of the 4,000, the Pope warned of how when we give in to despair, we too easily succumb to a mentality in which “everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable”, and those who are “unproductive, unsuitable or unworthy” are cast aside. To this attitude, he says, Jesus gave us the answer when he told the apostles not to send the crowds away, saying, in effect: “No, no, they don’t need to be excluded, they don’t need to go away; you yourselves, give them something to eat”.

“Jesus’ way of seeing things,” the Pope insisted, “leaves no room for the mentality which would cut bait on the weak and those most in need.” Knowing that everything is God’s gift, he “does not treat things as ‘objects’, but as part of a life which is the fruit of God’s merciful love”.

The Eucharist, Pope Francis continued, is a sacrament of communion that draws us out of our individualism and “gives us the certainty that all that we have, all that we are, if it is taken, blessed and given, can, by God’s power, by the power of his love, become bread of life for all”.

At a meeting with clergy and religious at the Don Bosco school, the Holy Father reflected on the Gospel story of the beggar Bartimaeus and reactions to him, warning against what he called a “spirituality of zapping”, in which people follow Jesus but do so in a way that refuses to relate deeply to others. “There are people,” he said, “who keep up with the latest news, the most recent best sellers, but they never manage to connect with others, to strike up a relationship, to get involved, even with the Lord whom they follow, because their deafness gets worse.”

Insisting that Christians who pass by suffering people without “sinking roots in their lives” are “listening to the word of God without letting it take root and bear fruit in our hearts”, and challenging too those who would acknowledge the suffering, only to silence and exclude them, he said that there was no compassion without stopping, to listen and share in others’ sufferings. This, he said, is the logic of discipleship.

Afterwards, he went to the Expo Feria convention centre to speak to 1,500 grass-roots activists from 40 countries at the second World Meeting of Popular Movements, in a lengthy address that the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano dubbed a “mini-encyclical”.

Over the course of almost an hour, the Pope called for economic justice, hailing those present as “social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all […] people left behind by the world market” and five times insisting on the importance of the three “L’s” of “land, lodging, and labour”.

In a searing indictment of the excesses of capitalism and a “new colonialism”, the Holy Father described the current system as intolerable for labourers, farm workers, communities, and the Earth itself.

“We are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home,” he said, lamenting that “behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea – one of the first theologians of the Church – called ‘the dung of the devil’. An unfettered pursuit of money rules.”

Condemning how capital can become an idol, the Pope insisted that it is a moral obligation, not mere philanthropy, to work for a just distribution of the fruits of the Earth and human labour, but for Christians the responsibility is even greater. “It is a commandment,” he said, stressing that “it is not enough to let a few drops fall whenever the poor shake a cup which never runs over by itself”.

While castigating political summits and leaders that talk much and do little, Pope Francis warned against simply replacing regimes and political structures. “We know from painful experience that changes of structure which are not accompanied by a sincere conversion of mind and heart sooner or later end up in bureaucratisation, corruption and failure. There must be a change of heart,” he said.

True change, he said, must come from seeing people as ends rather than means, and from loving people more than concepts or ideas. He urged those present to work towards this, never forgetting the lived experience of local realities, to build unity and to care for our common home.

Insisting that the Church has a duty to play a part in this, and must be allowed to do so, proclaiming the Gospel through accompanying the poor and excluded, he also pointed to the Church’s past failures and achievements in Latin America. All too aware of how “grave sins were committed” against the native peoples of South America in the past, he followed Pope St John Paul II and the Latin American bishops’ conference in asking forgiveness for the historical sins of the Church.

He asked too that people remember those priests and religious who preached the Gospel heroically, and “who left behind them impressive works of human promotion and of love, often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying their popular movements even to the point of martyrdom”.

On Friday morning Pope Francis dedicated the medals that had been given him by President Morales to Bolivia’s patron saint, Our Lady of Copacabana, and then received a rapturous welcome at Bolivia’s largest prison, the Santa Cruz-Palmasola re-education centre, built to detain 800 people but currently housing 5,000. “I could not leave Bolivia without seeing you,” he said, “without sharing that faith and hope which are the fruit of the love revealed on the cross of Christ.”

Thanking the prisoners for their welcome, he stressed that he too was a sinner, and that Ss Peter and Paul had both been prisoners. They, he said, had been sustained by prayer – their own prayers, and the prayers of others. Urging the gathered prisoners to help each other, he asked them to pass on his words to their families, saying that they “remind us that life is worth living, and that we should keep fighting for a better world”.

After meeting Bolivia’s bishops at a nearby parish church, he boarded his flight to Paraguay where he landed at Asuncion’s Silvio Pettirossi airport and paid a courtesy visit to President Horacio Cartes at the Palacio de Lopez. There, meeting officials and members of the diplomatic corps, he praised “the many ordinary Paraguayan people, whose names are not written in history books but who have been, and continue to be, the real protagonists in the life of your nation”.

Having already that day advised against being imprisoned by our past, in Paraguay he stressed the importance too of not forgetting it. “A people which forgets its own past, its history and its roots,” he said, “has no future, it is a dull people. Memory, if it is firmly based on justice and rejects hatred and all desire for revenge, makes the past a source of inspiration for the building of a future of serene coexistence.”

The following day, Pope Francis visited the Niños de Acosta Ñu general paediatric hospital, where he spoke with children with cancer and cardiovascular problems, telling them that we need to learn from their trust, their tenderness, their courage, and their fortitude, before celebrating Mass in the square before the basilica at Caacupé.

The Mass, which started a few minutes late, according to the local bishop, because the Pope was overcome with emotion beforehand, began with the Pope celebrating the role of shrines in the lives of ordinary Catholics. The basilica is home to a 16th-Century statue of Mary with which many miracles are associated, and so he praised shrines as “places of festival, of encounter, of family” where we come “to present our needs […] to give thanks, to ask forgiveness, and to begin again”.

Mary’s life, he reminded the congregation, “testifies that God does not deceive us, that God does not abandon his people, even in moments or situations when it might seem that he is not there”.

At a meeting later that day with representatives of civil society in the San Jose school’s Leon Condou stadium, he urged those gathered to work for a “culture of encounter” that recognises the dignity of others, regardless of our differences, and reiterated themes raised in his lengthy Bolivian speech, before celebrating vespers with the clergy, religious, seminarians and others in the metropolitan cathedral of Our Lady of Asuncion.

The final day of the trip, Sunday July 12, began with a visit to the people of the flood-prone slum Banado Norte, where in the Chapel of San Juan Batista he called for solidarity among the poor and dispossed, before celebrating Mass for over a million people in the Nu Guazu field.

Mass there was celebrated at a remarkable altar, designed to resemble the classic Jesuit mission façade and made from foodstuffs typical of the Guaraní people, including 40,000 ears of corn and 200,000 coconuts.Preaching on how Matthew’s Gospel describes how the apostles were sent out by Jesus, the Pope said that “the Christian journey is simply about changing hearts” and “is about passing from a mentality which domineers, stifles and manipulates to a mentality which welcomes, accepts and cares”.

The Christian mission, he said, is not a matter of clever plans and programmes, but is about learning to welcome. “Today the Lord says to us quite clearly: in the mentality of the Gospel, you do not convince people with arguments, strategies or tactics. You convince them by simply learning how to welcome them.”

After meeting Paraguay’s bishops at the apostolic nunciature’s cultural centre, Pope Francis ended his trip by meeting 200,000 young people at the Costanera riverside area, setting aside his script once more for them to read at their leisure, calling on them to be “youths with hope and strength” and urging them to stir things up, but to build as well.  “Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up,” he said.

If the Pope said nothing contentious after boarding his 7pm flight for Rome, people shouldn’t complain. He’d already supplied plenty of food for thought that week.