Guest Columnist Francis in South America...or the Pope that wasn't

Pope Francis embraces children at the Papal Mass at Bicentennial Park in Quito Ecuador on July 7 2015 Credit LOsservatore Romano CNA 7 7 15

The coverage that most media outlets gave to the recent trip of Pope Francis to South America seems to beg the question: Can the real Francis please stand up?

Let me explain: the Pope delivered a total of 24 speeches and homilies during his eight day trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. Six of them – three addressed to political authorities and another three to representatives of civil society – dealt with political or economic issues. One in particular, the one delivered to the meeting of popular movements in Bolivia, was singled out by most of the media as the most representative of the trip. But was it?

From the perspective of that single speech and the ensuing coverage, the Pope's trip looked to many like the populist tour of a political leader almost obsessed with grandstanding on climate change or economic justice. But in reality, Francis' trip was fundamentally pastoral, more oriented at spiritually nurturing the adoring, laughing and weeping crowds that gathered by the millions to listen to someone they mostly see as the Vicar of Christ rather than a mere leader among the nations.

"Pope calls Ecuadorean Catholics to imitate Mary," or "Pope consecrates Paraguay to the Immaculate Heart of Mary" are not headlines the press will run. But if used, they would have much better summarized what actually happened during the Pope's visit and, most importantly, what really moved 1.2 million people to stand for a 2-hour long Mass in 100 degrees under the sun in Guayaquil (Ecuador), or 1.3 million on three inches of wet mud in Ñu Guasú (Paraguay.)

Addressing the challenges of daily life, Francis said at the Samanes Park in Ecuador: "It is in the family when we learn how to ask permission without overwhelming the other person, how to say 'thank you' as an expression of a genuine appreciation of the things we receive, to dominate aggressiveness or voraciousness, and in it we also learn to ask for forgiveness when we hurt someone or we fight… because in all families there is fighting, the important thing is to always ask for forgiveness."

"Be patient, be hopeful, do as the Virgin Mary: pray, act and open your heart, because the best wine is yet to come," he said upon reflecting on how to apply the passage of the Wedding of Cana to daily Christian life.

Most notably, also in Ecuador, he said off-the-cuff: "I think I have to tell you this, as a message from Jesus. All of your spiritual richness that you Ecuadorians have, all this piety and depth come from having the courage – because those were hard times – of consecrating the nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to that divine and human heart who loves us so much."

Ecuador was the first nation in the world to be officially consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by its political authorities. The consecration was made by Catholic president Gabriel García Moreno in 1874.

After his re-election for a third term, he was assassinated in 1875 by a machete-wielding group of freemasons enraged by the consecration of the nation to the Sacred Heart. Garcia Moreno remains a controversial figure in Ecuador's history. For practicing Catholics, he is a martyr of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; for many others, he is the example of a fanatic politician who did not respect the separation between church and state.

More in Guest Columnist

Pope Francis disregarded the controversy to highlight an episode of Ecuadorean Catholic history that even the local bishops prefer not to mention.


And those were not the only words that could have enraged those who believe that Latin America needs to be more "secular" and less "Catholic."

"We have come from different places, regions, towns, to celebrate the presence of God among us. We left our homes and communities hours ago so that we can be together, as the Holy People of God. The cross bring to us the memory of all the communities born in the name of Jesus in this land, of which we are heirs," Francis said in Bolivia, reaffirming the nation's Catholic identity.

He would also say to the inmates of Palmasola, one of the most dangerous prisons in South America, regarding his presence among them: "Who is before you? I would like to answer this question with a certitude of life, a certitude that has branded me for life. A man that was and is saved from his many sins. And thus I introduce myself. I don't have much to offer you, but what I have and love I give you: Jesus Christ."

(Column continues below)

And on the public presence of the image of the Virgin Mary in Latin America he said at the Paraguayan Marian shrine of Caacupé: "María is and has been in our hospitals, in our schools, in our homes. She has been and is in our working places and our roads. Has been and is in at the table in our homes. Has been and is in the formation of our country, making us a Nation. She is in the glance of an image, a tiny holy card or a medal. And under the sign if the Rosary, we know that we are not alone, that She is with us."

And thus expressed his vision of Christian communities during the Mass at Ñu Guasú: "How beautiful it is to imagine our parishes, communities and chapels where Christians are together, not with closed doors but as true places of encounter with other human beings and with God."

Pope Francis also translated to the youth in Paraguay a page of classic Jesuit spirituality: "San Ignatius says that the devil, in order to recruit players for his team, promises honor, glory and power. He promises that you will be famous… but the devil is a 'smoke-seller.'"

His alternative to such temptation? "Let's be friends the way Jesus was. Not to remain in our small group,  but to go out, in the field, to make more friends. To communicate Jesus' love all over the world, wherever you are, in the workplace, playing sports, via WhatsApp, on Facebook or Twitter."

And, off-the-cuff again, to 250,000 youth gathered along the shore of the Paraguay river: "We want Young people that are strong, full of hope and fortitude, Why? Because they know Jesus, because they know God, because they have a free heart."

"A free heart!" Paraguayan kids cried loudly and in unison during the emotional, final meeting of his trip.  During the long farewell, Pope Francis asked the youth to repeat key ideas several times, improvised, joked, and confided personal reflections motivated by the testimonies of three young Paraguayans. There were some 250,000 kids. Much more than the some 500 who listened to his discourse on economic issues.

Pope Francis did express his distrust for capitalism and his concern for those "discarded" by the prevalent economic systems. But to reduce his trip to a political message would be equal to confuse the massive pilgrimages to Marian shrines that Cardinal Bergoglio presided as Archbishop, with a political march. They are dramatically different. So were the real trip and its coverage.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.