I have been on all the foreign trips Francis has made since becoming pope, but his visit in July to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay revealed new dimensions of the man and the impact of his ministry.
“We love people, not concepts or ideas,” he declared during a Mass in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The people know this, especially those who are poor, and millions turned out in each country to cheer him.
One of them was Neysa Rojas, 35, a Bolivian woman who works in a restaurant and struggles on a monthly wage equivalent to $360 to care for her sister’s two daughters, ages 11 and 13, and send them to school. She came to Francis’ Mass to receive his blessing because, she said: “He prays for the poor, he prays for me. He thinks of us who are poor, he is close to us.” Like so many others in these lands she calls him “Amigo de los pobres” (“Friend of the poor”).
Half a century ago Paul VI said people today listen more to witnesses than to teachers, and if they listen to teachers, it’s because they are witnesses. This is so true of Francis. He attracts people to Jesus by how he is and what he does, and they listen.
At the World Youth Day in Rio, I asked many young people from different countries what they liked most about Francis. They responded unanimously, “his humility, his simplicity and his love for the poor.” On every foreign trip since then, including this recent one, I asked that same question, and always received the same answer as at Rio.
Those traits stood out when Francis, visiting the Santa Cruz-Palmasola prison, told its 4,000 inmates: “The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins. That is who I am. I don’t have much more to give you or to offer you, but I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus Christ, the mercy of the Father.”
Throughout the visit, the Jesuit pope’s homilies were masterpieces, well worth reading, especially the one at Mass in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where, speaking about the family and the coming synod on that topic in October, he asked people to pray “so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure...scandalizing or threatening us, and turn it...into a miracle. The family today needs this miracle.”
During his visit, Francis proclaimed “the church’s best kept secret,” its social doctrine. This is of utmost relevance in Latin America. In his speeches Francis applied it incisively to the socio-economic and political situations in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, advocating, among other things, inclusiveness and dialogue.
He is not only proclaiming the church’s social teaching; he is also developing it, as he did in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.” The presidents and bishops of all three countries praised him for this text, which is so relevant to the lives of their people.
Since becoming pope, Francis has given special attention to the grassroots movements and organizations across the world. He sees them as “sowers of change.” Last year, at his request, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace organized the first World Meeting of Popular Movements, and he spoke at it.
He was given a hero’s welcome when he addressed the second World Meeting of Popular Movements, at Santa Cruz. There, in the most important talk of his entire visit, frequently interrupted by applause, Francis applied the church’s social doctrine to these movements, called for structural changes in the world’s economy and global mobilization to protect “our common home.” He encouraged local churches worldwide to work with these movements.
Then, in a highly significant passage, he asked for forgiveness from the native peoples of America. He acknowledged “with regret” that “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God” and said, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church itself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Throughout his exhilarating visit to Latin America, which involved a heavy workload, very high altitudes and changing temperatures, Francis showed remarkable stamina and demonstrated that he is in extraordinarily good health. That is good news for the church.