“There is still time to change” the way we order society and treat each other, Pope Francis told the people of Mexico, as he called for “conversion” six times in his homily at Mass in Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States, on the last day of his visit to Mexico.
His insistence on the need for conversion and change has been the leitmotif of his speeches throughout his six-day visit to this country, but it was particularly striking how strongly it featured in the three main talks on his last day here. It was the common thread linking his talk to 3,000 prisoners at El Cereso prison, his address to more than 1,000 business and labor leaders at the Colegio de Bachilleres of the state of Chihuahua and in his homily at Mass attended by more than 200,000 people on the fairgrounds 90 yards from the border with the United States—a homily that had a message for those on the other side, as well. One could describe these discourses as part of a triptych painted by Francis, as he sought to send a “wake up call” to Mexico (and the wider world) to change course urgently and respect human dignity.
He delivered his powerful message with passion at Mass near the Mexican-U.S. border in an incisive manner by offering a comparison between the way people lived in the biblical city of Nineveh and way they live in Mexico today. Nineveh, he said “was self-destructing as a result of oppression and dishonor, violence and injustice,” and “its days were numbered because the violence within it could not continue.” But God did not wish to destroy the city and in his mercy sent the prophet Jonah “to help” its citizens “understand” that destruction would surely come if they continued with “the way they treat each other, ordering and organizing themselves,” thereby “only creating death and destruction, suffering and oppression.”
Francis recalled that God told Jonah “Make them see this is no way to live, neither for the king nor his subjects, nor for farm fields nor for the cattle,” and that by becoming “used to this degrading way of life” they “have lost their sensitivity to pain” and “injustice has infected their way of seeing the world.” The pope said, God sent Jonah “to testify to what was happening” and “to wake up a people intoxicated with themselves.”
In his homily, Francis pointed out that we see here “the mystery” of God’s mercy, “which always rejects wickedness” but “takes the human person in great earnest” and “always appeals to the latent and numbed goodness within each person.” Unlike man, God does not want to bring destruction, rather “he seeks to transform each situation from within” and “invites us to conversion.” He explained that God always acts like this with people, showing them that “there is always the possibility of change” and that “we still have time to transform what is destroying us as a people, what is demeaning our humanity.”
Recalling how the king and people of Nineveh repented and wept for their wrongdoing, Francis told his Mexican audience that “to weep over injustice, to cry over corruption, to cry over oppression” is the path “to transformation.” These are tears that open people “to conversion,” he said.
During his visit to Mexico, and especially today in his homily, Francis appeared to take on the mantle of Jonah as he set out “to help” the Mexican people (but also Americans) to understand the great suffering that comes with migration. Describing it as a humanitarian crisis and a tragedy that is now “a global phenomenon,” he reminded everyone that migrants are “the brothers and sisters of those excluded as a result of poverty and violence, drug trafficking and criminal organizations.” They not only suffer poverty, they also have to endure various forms of violence, he said, and the young among them “suffer most”; they become “cannon fodder,” and are “persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs,” while many women are “unjustly robbed of their lives.”
Having described this terrible reality, Francis asked people to pray to God for “the gift of conversion, the gift of tears” and “to hear his call in the suffering faces of countless men and women.” He appealed for “No more death! No more exploitation!” and declared “there is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God.”
(Going off script, at the end of his homily, Pope Francis said, “I wish the opportunity of this moment to greet our brothers and sisters who are simultaneously accompanying us at the other side of the border, and, in a special way, to those gathered in the stadium of the University of El Paso, known as the Sun Bowl, under the guidance of the bishop, Mark Seitz. Thanks to the help of technology, we can pray, sing and celebrate together the merciful love that the Lord gives us, and which no border can prevent us from sharing. Thank you, brothers and sisters of El Paso, for having made us feel one only family and one same Christian community.”)
Opportunity Is the ‘Best Investment’
In his homily, Francis had spoken about poverty, which is the main cause for most of the migration from Mexico and Central America, and in his talk earlier in the day to a gathering of 1,000 entrepreneurs and labor organizers he spoke again about poverty and drew attention to the dysfunctional nature of the present economic system. He emphasized the pressing need “to create employment opportunities which are dignified and truly beneficial for society and especially for the young of this land.”
Half of Mexico’s population are young people and, he said, “one of the greatest scourges” is “the lack of opportunities for study and for sustainable and profitable work, which would permit them to work for the future.” In many cases, he added, “this lack of opportunity leads to situations of poverty. And this poverty then becomes the best breeding ground for the young to fall into the cycle of drug trafficking and violence.” He appealed to them not to allow such a future for Mexico.
In his speech, he criticized the fact that “the paradigm of economic utility” has become “the starting point for personal relationships,” and “the prevailing mentality advocates for the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost.”
Speaking frankly, he told them that all this “not only causes the ethical dimension of business to be lost, but it also forgets that the best investment we can make is in people, in individual persons and in families. The best investment is creating opportunities.”
Francis also criticized “the prevailing mentality” that “puts the flow of people at the service of the flow of capital, resulting in many cases in the exploitation of employees as if they were objects to be used and discarded.” Speaking like a prophet, he declared, “God will hold us accountable for the slaves of our day, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again.” He insisted that “the flow of capital cannot decide the flow and life of people.”
Faced with this stark reality, Francis said, “every sector has the obligation of looking out for the good of all; we are all in the same boat. We all have to struggle to make sure that work is a humanizing moment which looks to the future; that it is a space for building up society and each person’s participation in it.”
To emphasize his message for conversion and change, Francis raised some pointed questions, linked to the present and the future: “What kind of Mexico do you want to leave your children? Do you want to leave them the memory of exploitation, of insufficient pay, of workplace harassment? Or do you want to leave them a culture which recalls dignified work, a proper roof and land to be worked? What air will they breathe? An air tainted by corruption, violence, insecurity and suspicion, or, on the contrary, an air capable of generating alternatives, renewal and change?”
The pope admitted that “the issues raised are not easy but,” he said, “it is worse to leave the future in the hands of corruption, brutality and the lack of equity.” He acknowledged that “it is not easy to get along in an increasingly competitive world,” but, “it is worse to allow the competitive world to ruin the destiny of the people. Profit and capital are not a good over and above the human person; they are at the service of the common good. When the common good is used only in the service of profit and capital, the only thing gained is known as exclusion.”
In his address, Francis had highlighted the dramatic situation in a Mexico, where poverty and inequality thrive in this country of 120 million people, leaving some 50 million of them to live in poverty, and where there is much corruption and violence, and very many are forced to become migrants. For all these reasons, the pastor pope pushed hard for a change of direction in Mexican society, by which he meant “conversion”—and even though he did not use that precise word, the concept was clearly present.
He concluded by inviting the country’s entrepreneurs and workers “to dream of Mexico, to build the Mexico that your children deserve; a Mexico where no one is first, second or fourth; a Mexico where each sees in the other the dignity of a child of God.”
Do Not Be ‘Prisoners of the Past’
Before coming to meet “the world of work” Francis visited the city’s main prison, which is home to some 3,000 detainees, and there emphasized “the pressing journey we must undertake in order to break the cycle of violence and crime.” He said too much time has been lost “thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that these policies really solve problems.” But in this way, he said, “we have forgotten to focus on what must truly be our concern: people’s lives; their lives, those of their families, and those who have suffered because of this cycle of violence.”
Prisons, he said, “are an indication of the kind of society we are,” and in many cases “they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children.”
Emphasizing the need for “reintegration or rehabilitation,” he said this begins “by creating a system which we could call social health, that is, a society which seeks not to cause sickness, polluting relationships in neighborhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes and in the whole of the social spectrum. A system of social health that endeavors to promote a culture which acts and seeks to prevent those situations and pathways that end in damaging and impairing the social fabric.”
Instead of this, he said, sometimes it seems that prisons “are intended more to prevent people from committing crimes than to promote the process of rehabilitation that allows us to address the social, psychological and family problems which lead a person to act in a certain way.” He insisted that “the problem of security is not resolved only by incarcerating.” Rather there is a need “to intervene by confronting the structural and cultural causes of insecurity that impact the entire social framework.”
He insisted on the moral imperative “to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless and prisoners,” and said that by doing so society shows its ability “to heal their wounds and make them builders of a peaceful coexistence.”
Advocating “social reintegration,” he explains that this involves “making sure that all of our children go to school and that their families obtain dignified work by creating public spaces for leisure and recreation, and by fostering civic participation, health services and access to basic services, to name just a few possible measures.”
Francis told the prisoners that he had come to celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy with them, and for them this year means “learning not to be prisoners of the past, of yesterday” and “learning to open the door to the future, to tomorrow” and, especially, “believing that things can change.”
It’s true, he said, “we cannot turn back, we know that what is done, is done.” But he assured them that God, who is mercy, “does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward.”
He assured them that God’s mercy “can reach you in the hardest and most difficult of places,” but said that “from inside this prison, you must work hard to change the situations which create the most exclusion.” He encouraged them “to speak with your loved ones, tell them of your experiences, help them to put an end to this cycle of violence and exclusion.”
He concluded with words of encouragement, telling them that “the one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say ‘has experienced hell,’ can become a prophet in society.” He urged them “to work so that this society which uses people and discards them will not go on claiming victims.”
With these three discourses, Francis effectively concluded his visit to the second most Catholic country in the world, calling all Mexicans, and especially those in positions or power and influence in the state and church, to conversion and reminding everyone that “there is still time to change,” and the Jubilee of Mercy offers the appropriate moment to do so.