“Today, spring begins, and spring brings hope. It is a time of hope. And it is time for redemption for Naples,” Pope Francis told tens of thousands of cheering Neapolitans gathered in Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square of Naples, on March 21.
“This is my wish and my prayer for a city that has so much spiritual, cultural and human potential, and above all a great capacity to love,” he said in his homily during mass before an overflow crowd that spilled over into the nearby streets.
“Hope” was the central message the Argentine Pope brought to this city of some one million people, where unemployment runs alarmingly high, corruption and illegality is widespread, but where there are also countless islands of solidarity and mercy and many, many people that are trying to change things here in the face of organized criminality.
Francis left the Vatican before seven o’clock in the morning, as the sun was rising over Vesuvius and the enchanting bay of Naples, and headed by helicopter for the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary built over the ruins of the ancient city of Pompei. He came to pray there before the miraculous image, and entrusted to the Mother of Jesus “our miseries, the many streets of hate and blood, the thousands of ancient and new poverties and above all, our sins.” He prayed too for “all who live here and for the people of the world”—as he told the tens of thousands who had waited for him outside the shrine from sunrise. He blessed them on exiting from the shrine and then set off by helicopter for Scampia, a district in the north of Naples.
There, in Scampia’s main square, some 600,000 Neapolitans gave him a rapturous welcome. Scampia is the kind of ‘periphery’ that Francis so often speaks about, and which he knows from his own experience in Argentina. The zone is dominated by the local mafia—“the camorra”—which thrives on the drug trade, human trafficking, killing, intimidation and the fact that there is a 67 percent unemployment rate here. But is it also a zone where there are countless examples of courage and solidarity, and people who work day and night to give hope in an area where this is in short supply.
Discarding the potential risks in this violent zone, Francis arrived in an open pope mobile to the sounds of music and song—something that accompanied him throughout his twelve-hour whirlwind visit. Children embraced him on arrival and surrounded him when he took his seat on a platform as he answered three questions that were posed to him: one from a Filipino about the difficulties of immigrants here; another from a worker about the great problem of unemployment and the desperation this brings; and a third from a judge about the corruption and illegality in society.
He began by recalling that Neapolitans have “a long history,” and while “life in Naples has never been easy, it was never sad.” This spirit of joy is a great resource, he assured them. They must continue to draw on it, he said, and “Never let evil have the last word.” They applauded and chanted, "Francesco, Francesco," a chant that echoed time and time again throughout his whirlwind visit.
Turning to the question of immigrants, Francis—the son of Italian immigrants—said: “Immigrants are not second class citizens. We are all immigrants on the journey of life to another land; we are all children of God. We have no fixed abode here; we all have to move on, one first then another. We all have to go,” he told them.
Commenting on the gross unemployment here in Naples, but also in so many other places of the world, the pope again denounced the economic system that creates situations where people do not have a job. “The lack of work deprives a person of dignity. We must fight for our dignity,” he said. He denounced yet again the exploitation of workers, the paying of miserable wages, and said employers who do this are not Christian, and if they say they are “they are liars.”
As regards corruption, Pope Francis said, “We all have the possibility to be corrupt. It’s a temptation that is ever present.” But, he said, “corruption stinks. It stinks, it is ugly. A Christian who succumbs to corruption is not a Christian.” He urged the inhabitants of Scampia to have courage to avid corruption and to go forward “on the road of hope,” which he said, “is at the very core of the lives of Neapolitans, especially in their joy, their religion, and in their mercy.”
From Scampia, Pope Francis drove in his open pope-mobile along the 20 km route to the Piazza del Plebiscito. Crowds lined the streets, they had gathered there since early morning. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of this Pope whom they greatly love, and receive his blessing. Chanting "Francesco, Francesco", they held up newborn babes and little children for him to touch or bless, and waved Vatican flags as he drove by. Many let go yellow and white balloons.
In his homily at mass, he called on Neapolitans to “embrace the words of Jesus” and “work together for the redemption for Naples.” He urged them not to allow anyone “to steal your hope.” He encouraged them “not to give in to the lure of easy money or dishonest income. You cannot take it with you” and told them, “React firmly to organizations that exploit and corrupt the young, the poor and the weak, with the cynical drug trade and other crimes. Do not allow the young to be exploited in this way. Do not allow corruption and delinquency to disfigure the face of this beautiful city.”
He called on “the criminals and their accomplices”—by which he meant ‘the camorra,’ the Neapolitan mafia, “to convert to love and justice! Allow yourselves to find the mercy of God!”, and he told them “With the grace of God, who forgives all, it is possible to return to an honest life.”
Later in Poggioreale prison, where he met 300 detainees, (including an Argentinean, two transsexuals and some with HIV-AIDS), he reminded them that “the first saint was a thief”; he was crucified with Jesus, but asked for pardon for his wrongdoing, and was forgiven.
In his homily at Mass, the Pope encouraged the local authorities, institutions, various social realities and citizens, to work together to build a better future for the inhabitants of this city. “The future of Naples is not to be resigned and to fold in on itself—this is not your future—but the future of Naples is to open itself up with trust to the world.” He urged them to trust “in the mercy of Christ, who makes all things new.” And he reminded them that “to hope is already to resist evil. To hope is to see the world through the eyes and heart of God. To hope is to bet on the mercy of God, who is Father and always forgives and forgives everything.”
The pope from the southern hemisphere reminded priests and people alike that “Christ wants to reach everyone, especially those who live in the peripheries of existence, that they may find in him the center of their lives and the source of hope.” He encouraged the priests, women and men religious “to bring to everyone the mercy, tenderness and friendship of God.“ He called on every parish to “become a sanctuary for those seeking God and a welcoming home for the poor, the elderly and those in need.”
After Mass, he went to the city’s Poggioreale prison, as mentioned earlier. There he spent over two hours, thirty minutes longer than planned, had lunch with 112 detainees, answered questions from two of them, and then met them individually. He stayed in the prison so long that he had to renounce his half-hour rest in the afternoon.
He drove from the prison to the Cathedral where the clergy, men and women religious, including cloistered sisters from seven convents, as well as seminarians were waiting for him. Putting aside his prepared text, he spoke from the heart, drawing much applause: he urged them not to allow themselves to be attached to money—"how many scandals come to the Church because of money", but to live their vocations "in the spirit of poverty", and to follow Christ faithfully with their hearts centered on him alone. He encouraged them to live their lives with a missionary zeal that makes them reach out to others. And significantly, in the light of the Jubilee of Mercy that starts on December 8, he posed a question: Do you know what are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
He then venerated the relics of St. Genaro (Januarius), the 3rd century bishop and martyr whose dried blood is kept in glass vials that liquefy miraculously every year. Three popes had come here before him—Pius IX in 1849, John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2007, and had venerated the relic but it never liquefied in their presence. But when Francis took the relic in his hands it liquefied, at least partially. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of this city, then told the congregation in the cathedral: "The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Genaro loves our Pope and Naples!" His words provoked thunderous applause. Neapolitans had been hoping for this. And in accordance with tradition a white flag was raised inside the cathedral to signal the prodigious event. When word of the happening reached the thousands gathered outside the cathedral their roar of joy resembled that of the football stadium when the local team won the championship.
Popular religion runs deeps in the hearts of the inhabitants of Naples. They interpreted the fact that the blood liquefied with Pope Francis as a special grace from God that heralds good things for them. It was the first time ever that the blood liquefied in the presence of a pope. Francis, for his part, after looking carefully at the glass vial, acknowledged that it had indeed “partially liquefied”—quoting what the cardinal had declared. He then commented with a smile, “St Genaro only half loves us; he is asking us to make an even greater effort (at conversion).” This provoked even greater applause, and a spirit of immense joy.
After this highly emotional event, Francis went to greet and comfort many sick people, including adults and several children with serious disabilities, at the Jesuit church. He met them behind closed doors, together with their relatives and medical staff who care for them, far from the TV cameras. From there he went to the waterfront of the bay of Naples for the last event of a hectic day, for his meeting with the young. There, with Mount Vesuvius in the background and a naval corvette protecting him offshore, he spoke to thirty thousand young people, about "the silences of God," why children suffer, cohabitation, marriage, family life, and old age. "Our God is a God of words, gestures and silences," he told them. As he said goodbye to them with the traditional Neapolitan blessing, "E 'ca a Maronna v'accumpagne!" ("May the Madonna accompany you!") and prepared to boardthe popemobile that would take him to the helicopter for his return to Rome, the young people bade him a special farewell, singing “O Sole Mio.”