Keeping up his determined push for a change in the way the economy is run, Pope Francis, speaking on July 11 in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, called on business men and women, politicians and economists “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
He emphasized that “what should count first and foremost is the human person and the environment in which he or she lives.”
He issued his forceful challenge during an exhilarating and inspiring encounter with 4,000 representatives of Paraguay’s civil society, representing 1,600 associations and organizations from across this country of almost 7 million people. He met them at the indoor Leon Condu stadium of the city’s Salesian college. The majority of participants were under 30, which is hardly surprising given that 70 percent of the population is under that age.
“Certainly – Francis told them - "every country needs economic growth and the creation of wealth, and the extension of these to each citizen, without exclusion. But the creation of this wealth must always be at the service of the common good, and not only for the benefit of a few.”
“On this point we must be clear” - he stated – “because the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
He emphasized – in the presence of the country’s President Horacio Cartes – “that those charged with promoting economic development have the responsibility of ensuring that it always has a human face. They have in their hands the possibility of providing employment for many persons and in this way of giving hope to many families. Work is a right and it bestows dignity. Putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and an education – these are essential for human dignity.”
His words were greeted with thunderous applause. Before he arrived, an economist, reflecting more the government’s line, noted that the Paraguay has made impressive progress in the economic field over the past decade, but she had to admit that still today 1.2 million people (almost one in six of the population) “live in misery.” Other sources credit President Cartes, a businessman, who has held the top post since 2012, with improving the fortunes of the richest 6 percent and of the middle class (roughly 45 percent of the population). The same cannot be said for the situation of the poor (almost 50 percent of the population), it has got worse, and today some 20 percent of Paraguayans live in “extreme poverty”. The most recent figures show that 2-3% of the population has fallen into “extreme poverty” in the past two years. Those in the latter category struggle to live on less than US$5 per day. In Paraguay, the minimum wage is US$326 per month.
It came as no surprise then that the 4,000 persons in the stadium roared their approval and applauded vigorously when Francis called for a different way of running the economy in this country, and indeed throughout Latin America, and appealed for the elimination of corruption, which he called “the gangrene, the cancer of society.”
In his talk that lasted almost one hour, Francis argued that it is possible to create an economy which puts the human person, not profit, at the center. He cited, as an example from history, “the Reductions” which the Jesuits started in Paraguay in 1607 and lasted more than 150 years. They were “among the most significant experiences of evangelization and social organization in history - he stated – “because there the Gospel was the soul and the life of communities which did not know hunger, unemployment, illiteracy or oppression. This historical experience shows us that, today too, a more humane society is possible.” In actual fact, he said, “Where there is love of people and a willingness to serve them, it is possible to create the conditions necessary for everyone to have access to basic goods, so that no one goes without.”
A great roar went up from the 4,000 persons in the Stadium, an orchestra with instruments of recycled garbage played with gusto, and cameras flashed as Pope Francis entered the stadium. Hands reached out to touch him and his security struggled to protect him as he walked down to the platform. They started chanting, “Papa Francisco, Papa Franciso, il pueblo es contigo” (“Pope Francis, Pope Francis, the people are with you”). They then treated him to a splendid ballet performance which he greatly enjoyed. He blessed the dancers at the end.
Knowing they came from the different sectors of Paraguayan society, Francis praised their active involvement in society , saying and said, “A people unengaged and listless, passively accepting things as they are, is a dead people. In you, however, I see great vitality and promise. God always blesses this. God is always on the side of those who help to uplift and improve the lives of his children.”
“Problems and situations of injustice exist”, Francis said, “But seeing you and listening to you helps to renew my hope in the Lord who continues to work in the midst of his people.” He told them they have an important role to play “in pursuit of the common good” in Paraguay and “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable to see you before me is a real gift.”
Pope Francis’ meeting with the representatives of civil society was one of the two major events of this day, the other was the mass he celebrated at the Marian shrine of Caacupé, 40 km north of Asuncion, which is known as “the spiritual capital of the country.” In the Guarani language, Caacupé means ‘behind the mountain’; in actual fact the shrine sits on the summit of Caacupé hill, surrounded by hills and green valleys. It all began when an indigenous Christian named José, from the Atyra’ tribe, carved the image of Virgin Mary from the trunk of a tree where he had taken shelter from hostile indigenous people as he searched for food and wood in the Ytu’ valley. Fearing for his life, he invoked Mary’s protection and was saved. He therefor decided to settle with his family in that valley under her protection, and later built a little chapel in their in her honor. All this attracted many people and led to the formation of the Ytuensi people. Religious fervor subsequently led to the construction of a bigger chapel on 4 April 1770, the date that is considered as the foundation of that city. 200,000 pilgrims visit the Shrine on 8th Dec each year. The shrine – to which Francis has given the status of a minor basilica - contains the famous wooden statue , “Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcio’n de los Milagros.”
Francis knows much about this greatly venerated statue because there are almost one million Paraguayans working in Argentina, and many of them live in the shanty towns (‘villas de miseria”) of Buenos Aires. When he was archbishop there he got to know many of them and their popular religiosity, and he used often visit the parish of Nostra Senora de Caacupe in one of those ‘villas’ – Villa 21. It was therefore natural for him to want to come and celebrate mass here, as John Paul II did in 1988.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for his mass, including tens of thousands from Argentina – among them some of his relatives. He began his homily – a profoundly spiritual reflection on three defining events in the life of the Mother of Jesus, and their link to the lives of people in Paraguay today – by telling people, “Being here with you makes me feel at home, at the feet of our Mother, the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupé.”
The mass, which included enchanting Guarani music and hymns as well as readings in Spanish and English, ended around midday. But it was not the only event of the morning. Before coming here he visited a children’s hospital - “Ninos de Acosta Nu’, which is 20 km outside Asuncion and has 100 beds for various infantile pathologies. Francis insisted on visiting the children without official photographers because he sees these kinds of visits as something very personal.
Later in the day, and not in the original program, Francis visited the Jesuit church of Cristo Re, and there met the Jesuits of Paraguay, some 30-40 of them, as well as hundreds of students from the nearby school that they run. In the church, he prayed before the relic of the first Paraguayan saint - Roque Gonzalez, a Jesuit born in Asuncion whose life was intimately linked to the founding of a number of Reductions. This meeting with the Jesuits and prayer at the shrine of Saint Roque was but the latest in the Jesuit trail that has been an integral part of his visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay – but that merits a separate story.
Tomorrow, Sunday July 12, Pope Francis will visit one of the poorest zones of the city, and afterwards celebrate mass for a crowd expected to exceed one million. After mass, he will meet and have lunch with the Bishops of Paraguay and that afternoon he will have an encounter with young people before taking the plane back to Rome at the end of a highly successful and memorable eight-day pastoral visit in Latin America.