In one of his more powerful and impassioned addresses of his week-long Latin American visit, Pope Francis rallied thousands of members of popular movements Thursday, urging them to take stock of the grim situation of the world but not to succumb to pessimism or wait around for politicians to solve their problems.
The Pope painted a bleak picture of the social realities of Latin America and the world beyond, asking his hearers if they truly realize how serious the situation is in a world where there are so many landless peasants and so many workers still have no rights, where “senseless wars and fratricidal violence” still reign, and where “the soil, water, air, and all created beings are under constant threat.”
As he has done on other occasions, Francis pointed to global economic structures as a big part of the problem. “I wonder if we realize that these destructive realities respond to a system that has become global,” he said.
“Do we realize that the system has imposed the logic of profit at any cost, without thinking about social exclusion or destruction of nature?” he asked.
“Behind so much pain, death and destruction,” Francis said, we smell the stench of “the devil’s dung.”
“Being governed by unbridled ambition for money. That is ‘the devil’s dung,’” he said.
Although the Pope highlighted the need for structural changes in society, he insisted that everyone has a role to play in this transformation and encouraged grassroots solutions to the stark social problems facing the world.
Francis said that we suffer from “overdiagnosis” of our problems that sometimes leads to a sterile pessimism or wallowing in the negative. He urged his listeners not to retreat from problems, but to commit themselves to being part of the solution.
What can I do “if I earn just enough to eat?” Francis asked rhetorically. “What can I do as a craftsman, a peddler, a mail carrier, an excluded worker with no rights?”
“What can I do from my village, my hut, my town, my hamlet when I am discriminated against and marginalized?” he asked.
“You can do a lot,” he responded. “You, the most humble, the exploited, the poor and excluded, can do much. I dare say that the future of humanity is largely in your hands, in your ability to organize and promote creative alternatives,” he said.
The Pope invited the crowds to become “sowers of change” in their communities. This sort of social transformation, he suggested, “is not something that one day was achieved because of this or that political choice or because this or that structural change was established in society.”
The Pope insisted that changing structures, in fact, is not enough to transform society. “We painfully know,” he said, “that a change of structures not accompanied by a sincere conversion of heart and attitudes ends up sooner or later succumbing to bureaucratization and corruption.”
“We must change hearts,” he said.
Francis urged a “genuine encounter among people,” calling for a “culture of encounter.” He said that abstract ideas do not move people to action, but real faces and names are what make life meaningful and create a genuine human society.
“Nobody loves a concept, nobody loves an idea,” he said. “People love people.”
Francis also declared that “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality and proposing solutions to contemporary problems,” but at the same time, he made concrete suggestions, including greater attention to distributive justice.
“The fair distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” he said. “It is a moral duty. For Christians, the burden is even stronger: it is a commandment. This is to give back to the poor and the people what belongs to them.”
Again, Francis challenged his hearers to be protagonists of change, and not merely its beneficiaries. He said that popular movements have an essential role, “not only demanding and demanding, but essentially creating.”
“You are social poets, job creators, builders and food producers,” he said, “especially for those discarded by the world market.”
Francis also repeated apologies made by his predecessor Saint John Paul II for the “many serious sins committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”
The Pope said he wished to ask forgiveness, “not only for the offenses of the Church itself, but for crimes against indigenous peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
At the same time, Francis was quick to recognize “the thousands of priests and bishops who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the Cross.”
“There was sin,” he said, “but grace abounded through those men who defended the rights of the native peoples.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.