Asuncion: “A faith without solidarity is a weak faith, a sick faith, a dead faith”, Pope Francis told thousands of shanty town dwellers when he visited them in their settlements in the wetlands of Banado Norte, on the last day of his visit in here.
“I have looked forward to being with you today. I could not come to Paraguay without spending some time with you, here on your land”, Francis said, speaking a platform erected in a soccer field. They had been preparing for his visit for a long time where 24,000 families – 100,000 people - live, some for 60 or more years, but the majority for over 30, as Señora María García, coordinator of the shanty town dwellers, told him.
Their town is about 10 minutes’ drive from Asuncion’s city center, and located on the banks of the river Paraguay which often rises, causing flooding , suffering and destruction, as happened in recent weeks. The Government wants to relocate them, but they’re resisting as so many of them work in the city and they have built their homes here with their own hands, and to move to a new location at a distance from their work would entail increased travel costs – something they cannot afford; they want the title deeds to this land, but the city authorities have refused to give them these, hence the significance of Francis’s words opening words when he said he was visiting them “on YOUR land.”
His face radiated joy at being back among Paraguayan shanty town dwellers. His visit must have brought back many happy memories from Buenos Aires (less than 2 hours by plane from here) where, as archbishop (1998-2013) he was a regular visitor to the city’s shanty towns where most of the inhabitants were from Paraguay. He used to baptize and confirm their children, hear their confessions, give them first communion, marry them, help them in various ways, and join in their religious festivals. The people at Banado Norte knew all this and welcomed him with extraordinary warmth and emotion as “un hermano y amigo de los pobres” (“A brother and friend of the poor”).
The Pope arrived in the small Fiat Idea car that he is using here, visited two families in their homes and the chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist before going to the nearby by soccer field. There he was welcomed by Fr.Ireneo Valdez, a Jesuit like him, who serves as parish priest here and who greeted him as “a brother, a companion, one of us.” A woman parishioner, Señora Angélica Viveros, welcoming him as “a friend of the poor”, spoke about their trials and hardships, and their ongoing struggle to keep the land on which their homes are built which is now greatly desired by property developers and businesses. “It’s a hard struggle to bring up a family here”, she said in an allusion to the drugs, the violence and the lack of basic services like health care and education. Francis who was listening attentively nodded; he understood very well what she meant. He wants next October’s synod to respond have this issue on its agenda too.
Commenting on the fact that the parish is named after the Holy Family, Pope Francis told them, “As I arrived, everything reminded me of the Holy Family. To see your faces, your children, your elderly, and to hear about your experiences and everything you went through to be here, to have a dignified life and a roof over your heads, to endure the bad weather and the flooding of these last few weeks…. All this makes me think of the little family of Bethlehem.”
He said he rejoiced to see that their struggles “have not taken away your laughter, your joy and your hope” nor have they “lessened your sense of solidarity but if anything, they have made it grow.” He went onto talk about Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem who were “forced to leave home, families and friends. They had to leave all that they had and to go somewhere else, to a place where they knew no one, a place where they had no house or family. That was when that young couple had Jesus. That was how they gave us Jesus. They were alone, in a strange land, just the three of them.”
He recalled that “all of a sudden, shepherds began to arrive” – people who like themselves were experiencing trials and hardships, “and they became neighbors. In an instant, they became a family to Mary and Joseph. The family of Jesus.”
Francis told the shanty town dwellers who constantly interrupted his talk with applause, “That is what happens when Jesus comes into our lives. It is what happens with faith. Faith brings us closer. It makes us neighbors. It draws us closer to the lives of others. Faith awakens our commitment, our solidarity. The birth of Jesus changes our lives.”
“A faith which does not draw us into solidarity is a faith which is dead. A faith without solidarity is weak, it is sick, it is dead. It is a faith without Christ, a faith without God, a faith without brothers and sisters”, Pope Francis stated. The crowd roared their agreement. He recalled that “the first to show this solidarity was our Lord, who chose to live in our midst.”
Looking out at these thousands of poor people, the Successor of Peter told them, “I come to you like those shepherds. I want to be your neighbor. I want to bless your faith, your hands and your community. I come to join you in giving thanks, because faith has become hope, and hope in turn kindles love. The faith which Jesus awakens in us is a faith which makes us able to dream of the future, and to work for it here and now.”
He encouraged them “to continue to be missionaries, to keep spreading the faith in these streets and alleys. Be neighbors above all to the young and the elderly. Be a support for young families and all families which are experiencing difficulty.”
He urged them to remain united at all times. He warned them that the devil is “ever active” always seeking to divide them, but they “must remain united and in solidarity, one with the other.” They applauded vigorously.
Francis concluded by commending their families to the Holy Family “so that its example and its witness may continue to be a light for your path, an encouragement in times of trouble” and always “help us to be ‘shepherds’ who can accompany, support and encourage our families.”
He then invited them to pray the Our Father together with him, and “to remember to pray for me.” They recited that prayer together in Spanish, and then – to their great delight – he asked to join him in praying it again, this time in Guarani.
From Banado Norte, the Pope drove to celebrate mass in at Nu Guazu, a field that was a former military airbase, where John Paul II had celebrated mass here in 1988 at the time of the military dictatorship. More than one million people had gathered there to pray with him, including 170, 000 from his homeland – Argentina, including ten family members, and the country’s President, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, who sat near Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes. Thousands too came from Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay. The vast crowd erupted with joy and cheered when he arrived in the popemobile and drove among them.
He concelebrated mass with the country’s bishops and hundreds of priests, on a warm, slightly windy day, at an altar on a platform that was beautifully framed with panels (a tableaux) made from dried fruits, including corn, coconuts, various kinds of pumpkins, and seeds from flowers and grain. Two of the panels portrayed images of Saints Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, both made from seeds. All the panels were made in recent months by people in the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Rosa; towns that are all that remain after the destruction of the Reductions that were run by the Jesuits in the 1600 and 1700s. (San Ignacio is the oldest town from that period, and is very proud of its history).
Other panels at the bottom of the tableaux, bore an image of Paraguay’s first saint, Roque Gonzalez, a Jesuit, and of Our Lady of Asuncion. The whole artistic creation was a reminder of the history, the culture and tradition of the faith in this land, and were particularly appropriate as a setting for the mass celebrated by the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from Latin America. Francis knows all this history well, and truly appreciated this beautiful creation, and was moved by it.
During the mass, enriched by inspiring singing and music, Pope Francis delivered a homily in which he recalled that when Jesus sent his disciples on mission he gave them very precise instructions, and challenged them “to take on a whole range of attitudes and ways of acting.” He told them clearly: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money...” and “When you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place”.
Observing that “all this might seem quite unrealistic”, Francis drew attention to “one key word” in these instructions which “is a word at the heart of Christian spirituality, of our experience of discipleship”, that word is “welcome.”
He said Jesus sent his disciples “out to be welcomed, to experience hospitality” and told them, “Where you enter a house, stay there”. He sent them out “to learn one of the hallmarks of the community of believers” which is “to welcome others, to show hospitality”.
Pope Francis said, “We might say that a Christian is someone who has learned to welcome others, to show hospitality. Jesus does not send them out as men of influence, landlords, officials armed with rules and regulations. Instead, he makes them see that the Christian journey is about changing hearts.”
In actual fact, he said, the Christian journey “is about learning to live differently, under a different law, with different rules. It is about turning from the path of selfishness, conflict, division and superiority, and taking instead the path of life, generosity and love. It is about passing from a mentality which domineers, stifles and manipulates to a mentality which welcomes, accepts and cares.”
Commenting on all this, Francis said “these are two contrasting mentalities, two ways of approaching our life and our mission. How many times do we see mission in terms of plans and programs. How many times do we see evangelization as involving any number of strategies, tactics, maneuvers, techniques, as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments.” But he declared, “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 learning how to welcome them.”
At the end of the celebration, Francis briefly thanked the Presidents of Paraguay and Argentina for their presence, and he smiled when the Argentine President presented him with framed picture from a newspaper from more than half a century ago that carried the headline, “John XXIII prays for Eva Peron.”
He then returned to the nunciature, where he had an informal meeting with the Bishops of Paraguay, without giving any formal speech. He had done the same with the Bishops of Ecuador and Bolivia.
After a brief rest, he traveled to the Costanera riverside, 15 minutes from Asuncion, for a joy-filled meeting with 5,000 young people, before boarding the plane for Rome.
Thus ended his extraordinarily successful visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, during which the population of all three countries showed tremendous love, emotion and admiration for Francis. They turned out in their millions to cheer and receive the blessing of Latin America’s first pope, the man they affectionately call “the friend of the poor.”