Immediately after arriving at La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, on July 8, Pope Francis spoke of the great challenges facing this country today and declared that “Bolivia is at a historic crossroads” and “Now is the time for Integration.”
Though he spent less than four hours in La Paz, at the advice of his doctors concerned at the impact the city’s high altitude (3,600 meters) might have on him, Francis seemed to encounter no such health problems. Indeed, he appeared to be in splendid physical form, and at the end of a long day that began in Quito and ended in La Paz he was still smiling, waving and embracing people.
Knowing he is Bolivia only for two and a half days (July 8-10), the Jesuit pope lost no time in spelling out exactly what he meant when he declared that the country is at “a historic crossroads” and now is the time for “integration." He began to do so in his speech at the airport on arrival, and developed in some detail his ideas when he spoke in the Cathedral at La Paz.
Francis flew to Bolivia, a country of over 11 million people, after a triumphant three days in Ecuador, and was given a colorful and enthusiastic welcome by the country’s President, Evo Morales, on his arrival at El Alto airport, the highest airport in the world (4,000 meters).
The first Latin American pope very warmly embraced Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia, as soon as he stepped off the plane and in his speeches gave important backing to the policies he is pursuing, him, while at the same time suggesting and encouraging development in some areas.
The Bolivian President gave him some traditional gifts on arrival, including coca leaves and an indigenous bag, called him “brother” several times in his welcome speech, and said that “if in the past the Church was used for repression, to day things have drastically changed.” Indeed, he said, “the one who betrays a poor man betrays Christ, and the one who betrays a poor man betrays Francis!”
Thanking the President for his very friendly words, Francis said he had come as “a guest and a pilgrim” to “confirm the faith of those who believe in the Risen Christ” so that here on earth “we may be witnesses of his love, leaven for a better world and co-operators in the building of a more just and fraternal society.”
Francis had come here as a young Jesuit priest in 1969, and today he expressed his joy at being again in “this country of singular beauty, blessed by God in its various regions: its altiplano and valleys, its Amazon region, its deserts and the incomparable lakes.” Above all else, he said, “Bolivia is a land blessed in its people. It is home to a great cultural and ethnic variety, which is at once a great source of enrichment and a constant summons to mutual respect and dialogue.” And it’s home to ancient aboriginal peoples and the more recent native peoples, where Spanish and 36 native languages are spoken.
He remembered in a special way “the sons and daughters of this land” who have had to immigrate to other lands in search of a better life. On the Sunday before he set out on this trip, 300 immigrant Bolivian women working in Rome came to St Peter’s Square to wish him well. Now he remembered them, and the millions like them, and returned to this major concern of immigration when he spoke in the cathedral.
At the airport, he recalled how the Gospel took deep root here, and through the years “it has continued to shed its light upon society, contributing to the development of the nation and shaping its culture.”
He praised Bolivia for “making important steps towards including broad sectors in the country’s economic, social and political life.” (This has happened under Morales.) And he noted that its constitution” recognizes the rights of individuals, minorities and the natural environment, and provides for institutions to promote them.” But to achieve these goals, Francis said “a spirit of civic cooperation and dialogue is required, as well as the participation of individuals and social groups in issues of interest to everyone.” Later in the cathedral he again emphasize the importance of dialogue, and his words there sparked spontaneous applause.
He also advocated “greater appreciation” of the different values of people, so that “all can work together” for the common goals, without anyone “being excluded or overlooked.”
At the same time, Pope Francis warned Bolivians against a growth that is “merely material,” and said this not only risks creating new divisions always, but also runs the danger that “the wealth of some” is “built on the poverty of others.” He emphasized that “social unity requires efforts to promote the education of citizens.”
He encouraged believers “to share the joy of the Gospel” with everyone, and told the Bolivian bishops they must be “prophetic” when they speak to society in the name of the church that has taken “a preferential, evangelical, option for the poor.” He called on the church here to express the love of Jesus “in programs, works and institutions which work for the integral development of the person, as well as for the care and protection of those who are most vulnerable.” He insisted that “we cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.”
As he had done two days earlier in Guayaquil, Ecuador, so too now in La Paz, Pope Francis that “those responsible for the common good of society” should give “special attention” to the family since it is “the basic cell of society,” as well as to children, young people and the elderly.
Francis concluded by looking forward to “moments of encounter, dialogue and the celebration of faith” in the coming days, and saying that he was “pleased” to be in a country “which calls itself pacifist, a country which promotes the culture of peace and the right to peace.”
From the airport, he drove in the popemobile to La Paz, wearing his overcoat, and waving and blessing the cheering crowds that came out to see him on this icy cold evening.
On the way, he stopped to pray at the place where the Spanish Jesuit, Father Luis Espinal, was assassinated on 21 March 1980 for his work for social justice for the miners and for his media work, during the brutal dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza.
La Paz is the country’s capital city and seat of the government as well as of the legislative and judicial powers. Originally founded at a nearby village in 1548, it was transferred here because of the icy cold climate. It was called “Nuestra Senora de La Paz” in remembrance of the peace that prevailed in the land after the insurrection against the Viceroy of Peru in 1546. The city, which became the country’s capital after it gained independence from Spain in 1825, stands at an economic and politically strategic position on the road between the silver mines of Potosi and the port of Lima. It is flanked by wooded countryside where coca leaves and agricultural products grow, and 86 percent of its one million population is Catholic.
In La Paz, Francis made a courtesy visit to the President at Government Palace. Morales, a former leader of the “cocaleros” (coca-growers) union, has been president since 2006. He first met Francis on Oct. 28, 2014, when he participated in the First World Meeting of Popular Movements, held at the Vatican. They spoke again in private this time, and the President gave him a number of gifts including a cross made out of the hammer and sickle, which the pope liked. Francis, in his turn, gave Morales a copy of his encyclical, and then the President accompanied him to the nearby Cathedral where Francis addressed the political and civic authorities, the diplomatic corps and representatives of the nation’s cultural institutions and volunteer organizations.
Pope Francis offered “a few words of encouragement” in support of their work, and reminded them that “we all” share a calling to work for “the common good.” He prayed their efforts may contribute “to the growth of greater respect for the human person” and his or her inalienable rights that are ordered to “the integral development” and “social peace” - that is, “the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice.”
He recalled that on his way from the airport to the cathedral he had admired the snowcapped peaks of Hayna Potosí, the “young mountain,” and Illimani, the mountain which shows “the place where the sun rises,” and he had also seen “the ingenious way in which many houses and neighborhoods blend with the hillsides.” He reminded his audience that since the natural environment “is closely related” to the social, political and economic environment, “it is urgent for all of us to lay the foundations of an integral ecology, one capable of respecting all these human dimensions in resolving the grave social and environmental issues of our time.”
The Argentine pope warned that if we fail to achieve this, then “the glaciers of those mountains will continue to recede, and our sense of gratitude and responsibility with regard to these gifts, our concern for the world we want to leave to future generations, for its meaning and values, will melt just like those glaciers.”
He reminded them too that “we need one another” and said, “If politics is dominated by financial speculation, or if the economy is ruled solely by a technocratic and utilitarian paradigm concerned with maximum production, we will not grasp, much less resolve, the great problems of humanity.”
He underlined especially the importance of developing “cultural life” in the country, and the need for “an ethical and moral education that can cultivate solidarity and shared responsibility between individuals.” And he called for an acknowledgement of “the specific role of religions in the development of culture and the benefits which can they can bring to society.”
As he had done in Ecuador, so too here Francis affirmed that Christians “are bearers of a message of salvation which has the ability to ennoble and to inspire great ideals” and lead people “to ways of acting which transcend individual interest, readiness to make sacrifices for the sake of others, sobriety and other virtues which develop in us the ability to live as one.”
Then turning to a subject that is close to his heart, Francis spoke of “the ease” with which “we become accustomed to the atmosphere of inequality all around us, with the result that we take it for granted.” And without realizing it, he said, “we confuse the ‘common good’ with ‘prosperity,’ especially when we are the ones who enjoy that prosperity.” But “prosperity understood only in terms of material wealth has a tendency to become selfish, to defend private interests, to be unconcerned about others, and to give free rein to consumerism.” Understood in this way, he said, “prosperity, instead of helping, breeds conflict and social disintegration; and, as it becomes more prevalent, it opens the door to the evil of corruption which brings so much discouragement and damage in its wake.”
On the other hand, he said, “the common good is much more than the sum of individual interests. It moves from ‘what is best for me’ to ‘what is best for everyone’. It embraces everything that brings a people together: common purpose, shared values, ideas which help us to look beyond our limited individual horizons.”
Pope Francis said “different social groups have a responsibility to work for unity and the development of society” and emphasized that “freedom is always the best environment for thinkers, civic associations and the communications media to carry out their activities with passion and creativity in service of the common good.”
As the crowd listened in silence, he recalled that Christianity “has played an important role in shaping the identity of the Bolivian people.” He affirmed that “faith is a light which does not blind or confuse, but one which illuminates and respectfully guides the consciences and history of every person and society.” In this context, he underlined the importance of “religious freedom” and the fact that faith “cannot be restricted to a purely subjective experience,” rather it helps foster the growth of spirituality and Christian commitment in social projects.
Again, as in Ecuador, he returned to the subject of “the family” which, he said, “is everywhere threatened by domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest, the abandonment of the elderly, and children left to the streets.” Some offer “pseudo-solutions” that are the result of “ideological colonization,” he said, but history shows that “so many social problems are quietly resolved in the family” and “failure to assist families would leave those who are most vulnerable without protection.”
Then, in an indirect reference to the tensions between Bolivia and Chile over access to the sea, which have led to the matter being taken to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Francis insisted that “it is essential to improve diplomatic relations between the countries of the region, in order to avoid conflicts between sister peoples and to advance frank and open dialogue about their problems. Instead of raising walls, we need to be building bridges.”
He reminded them that “all these issues, thorny as they may be, can find solutions which are shared, reasonable, equitable and lasting,” and in any case “they should never be a cause for aggressiveness, resentment or enmity” because “these only worsen situations and stand in the way of their resolution.”
Pope Francis told his distinguished audience that “Bolivia is at an historic crossroads” and said “politics, the world of culture, the religions are all part of this beautiful challenge to grow in unity.” He said that “in this land whose history has been marred by exploitation, greed and so many forms of selfishness and sectarianism, now is the time for integration.” He expressed his confidence that Bolivia “can create new forms of cultural synthesis” and said the country “in its process of integration and its search for unity, is called to be an example of such multifaceted and inviting harmony.”
He concluded by invoking God’s blessing on the country, and prayed that Bolivia “may make ever greater progress towards being the happy homeland whose people enjoy the blessings of good fortune and peace.”
When he finished speaking, President Morales embraced him, and then Francis drove in his popemobile, through cheering crowds, to the airport. There he took a Bolivian Aviation plane to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a city 400 meters above sea level in the east of the country with a population of 1.7 million people, 80 percent of whom are Catholic. He will reside there for the rest of his visit.