Peruvians cheered, sang and waved colorful scarves when Pope Francis arrived to celebrate Mass for a crowd of 200,000 on the sun-swept beach of Huanchaco, near the coastal city of Trujillo in northern Peru. The area was badly hit by “El Niño costero,” a cyclical weather event in the Pacific Ocean that caused tremendous flooding and damage here in 2016 and 2017. “I wanted to be here and to pray with you,” the pope said to cheers and applause.
They had come from all over the north of Peru to see the pope, many bringing statutes of Our Lady or their patron saints, a testament to the popular religiosity that flourishes in this part of the world. Francis, who knows the importance of popular religiosity, acknowledged this in his homily, as he named one by one these concrete expressions of the faith, drawing warm applause each time.
Peruvians cheered, sang and waved colorful scarves when Pope Francis arrived to celebrate Mass for a crowd of 200,000.
Pope Francis celebrated Mass from a covered podium looking out on the Pacific Ocean. In the distance, he could see naval ships, placed there to protect him. Earlier as he flew from Lima to Trujillo, four air force jets escorted his plane. But there was no threat to him here, only an enthusiastic crowd waiting to see and touch him.
The spirited crowd went silent when the pope said, “As we begin our Mass, let us think of Jesus!” The silence lasted almost one minute. Indeed, one of the impressive aspects of this festive celebration was the great silence and devotion of the people. Pope Francis is revered in this overwhelmingly Catholic country of 31 million people, with a growing economy but also great inequalities, where the faith is flourishing.
Francis began his homily by noting that “these lands have the flavor of the Gospel. Everything around us, against the backdrop of this immense sea, helps us better to understand the experience that the apostles had with Jesus and that today we, too, are invited to relive.”
“I wanted to be here and to pray with you,” the pope said to cheers and applause.
He said: “Like the apostles, you know the power of nature, you have experienced its force. Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero,’ whose painful consequences are still present in so many families, especially those who are not yet able to rebuild their homes. This is also why I wanted to be here and to pray with you.”
In his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis spoke about climate change, which scientists say could lead to stronger, more frequent El Niño events. The phenomenon has affected the whole country but especially the northern coast in 2016 and 2017. Unusually warm coastal waters resulted in heavy rains, which caused normally dry rivers to overflow and led to mudslides (called “huaycos,” for its Quechua name) in various places along its path.
The devastating effect of the rains worsens the situation because people, in their scarcity, build their homes along the riverbed in the dry season without taking into account the consequences. In the first three months of 2017, El Niño costero had already resulted in 101 dead, 353 wounded, 19 disappeared; there were an estimated 141,000 victims in Trujillo, and nearly a million people were affected at the national level. Over the past year, Trujillo experienced seven mudslides, often described as “the seven plagues” by the city’s archbishop, Héctor Miguel Cabrejos, O.F.M.
“Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero.’”
On the beach under the hot sun, Pope Francis told the crowd: “We bring to this eucharistic celebration that difficult moment that questions our faith and often causes it to waver. We want to unite ourselves to Jesus. He knows our pain and our trials; he endured the greatest of sufferings in order to accompany us in our own trials.”
Francis said he knows that amid difficult situations like that of El Niño “our strength of spirit and our deepest convictions” are called into question. But such trials, he said, “make us realize how important it is to stand united, not alone, and to be filled with that unity which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
Francis praised the “solidarity and generosity” the people of Trujillo demonstrated when El Niño struck: “You went out to meet the Lord with countless concrete gestures of support. In the midst of darkness, you, together with so many others, were like living candles that lit up the path with open hands, ready to help soothe the pain and share what you had, from your poverty, with others.”
Pope Francis: “We want to unite ourselves to Jesus. He knows our pain and our trials.”
Pope Francis told the crowd that “the soul of a community is measured by how it manages to come together to face times of difficulty and adversity, in order to keep hope alive. By doing so, they give the greatest witness to the Gospel: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13:35).”
He reminded them that “faith opens us to a love that is concrete, practical, generous and compassionate, a love that can build and rebuild hope when it seems that all is lost.” In this way, he said, we share in the work of God, who with the same tender love of a mother “wipes the tears of his children.” At the end of life, at the Last Judgment, Pope Francis said, “the Lord will ask a beautiful question: How many tears did you dry today?”
Francis then turned to “the moral degradation of our communities,” a problem that he had spoken about with the country’s authorities on the previous day.
At the Last Judgment, Pope Francis said, “the Lord will ask a beautiful question: How many tears did you dry today?”
Francis told them that he knew that besides El Niño, “other ‘storms’ can hit these coasts, with devastating effects on the lives of the children of these lands. These storms, too, make us question ourselves as a community and test the strength of our spirit.” Those storms include “organized violence”—a reference to the Mafia-like operations that plague this part of Peru—as well as “the lack of educational and employment opportunities, especially among young people,” and “the lack of secure housing for so many families forced to live in highly unstable areas without safe access.”
All these, the pope said, “destroy the mutual trust so necessary to build a network of support and hope; earthquakes that shake the soul.”
The crowd was listening attentively as Francis spoke. He said, “We often wonder about how to face these storms or how to help our children pull through in these situations.
“I want to tell you that no better way exists than that of the Gospel: It is called Jesus Christ. Fill your lives always with the Gospel.”
He told them that “in Jesus, we have the strength of the Spirit not to treat as natural the things that hurt us, that dry up our spirit and, what is worse, rob us of hope.” Those gathered applauded strongly when Pope Francis told them, “Let no one rob you of hope!”
With Jesus, he said, “the soul of this town of Trujillo can continue to be called ‘the city of eternal spring,’ because with him, everything is an opportunity for hope.”
Francis spent the whole day in this city, and in the afternoon he spoke to the priests and religious of northern Peru before returning to Lima where, tomorrow, he will celebrate another Mass before taking the plane back to Rome.