‘You know that I am preparing an encyclical on ecology; be assured that your concerns will be present in it,” Pope Francis told 150 representatives of grassroots movements from 80 countries when he met with them in the Vatican on Oct. 28.
As pastor in Buenos Aires, he knew the potential of such movements, and when elected pope he invited two of their representatives—from the wastepaper-pickers’ organization (cartoneros) and the shanty towns—to be present at his inauguration ceremony.
Convinced that excluded people, when organized in grassroots movements, can be motors of social change, Francis wants the church to listen to them and to explore ways to network and accompany them in their struggles for social justice.
One year ago, he asked the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, in liaison with the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, led by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, to invite them to the Vatican.
The meeting on Oct. 29-30 brought together leaders of grassroots movements from all continents, representing organizations of increasingly excluded social sectors, including workers in precarious employment conditions, the unemployed, the peasants, the landless, indigenous peoples, those at risk from agricultural speculation, those living in the peripheries, migrants and displaced peoples.
Pope Francis spent almost two hours with them and delivered an inspiring speech that is being described as a miniature social encyclical, in which he supported their fight for “land, housing and work.” Aware that some criticize him for touching such issues, he remarked: “It’s strange; but if I speak about this, for some the pope is a Communist. They don’t understand that love for the poor is at the heart of the Gospel.”
“I want to unite my voice with yours in this fight,” he told these leaders from different religions, cultures and countries. He hailed the meeting as “a great sign” because they came “in the presence of God, and of the church” to speak about “a reality that is often silenced. The poor not only suffer injustice, they also fight against it.”
He assured them that the issues they are concerned about—land, food, housing, work, peace, ecology, exploitation, oppression, human trafficking—will be present in his encyclical on ecology. That encyclical, he revealed on the flight back from Korea, will be “a magisterial document” that focuses on “the essentials that we can affirm with assurance.” It will be published in 2015.
He encouraged these leaders to work together, saying, “Solidarity means to think and act in terms of the community” and “to fight against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and [loss of] land, housing, social and labor rights.” It means “to confront the destructive effects of the ‘Empire of Money’”— namely “forcible displacements, migrations, human and drug trafficking, war, violence.” Solidarity, “understood in its most profound sense, is a way of making history, and that is what the grassroots movements are doing.”
He emphasized the need for agricultural reform and the right of every family to have a home of their own. He denounced the great neglect of “millions of our brothers and sisters” in large cities where “we build towers, malls and businesses, but abandon the parts where the marginalized reside—the peripheries.”
He denounced the economic system that “needs to plunder nature to sustain a frenetic level of consumption,” that causes climatic changes with negative effects especially on the poor. He pointed to rising unemployment that deprives people of their dignity and said, “We must put the human person at the center of our whole social and economic system.”
Speaking of “peace and ecology,” Francis said, “There cannot be land, housing or work if we don’t have peace, if we destroy the planet.” These issues cannot be left in the hands of the politicians alone; the people and their organizations must also speak up, he said.
João Pedro Stédile, a leader of the Sem Terra movement in Brazil, praised Francis’ “great contribution” and his affirming agrarian reform “not only as an economic and political problem but also a moral one.” But the most important thing is the symbolism, he said: “No pope has ever organized a gathering of this kind with the social movements.”