ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — After delivering more than 20 speeches, visiting hospitals and prisons, celebrating Masses before vast crowds, and meeting politicians, social elites, and bishops, Pope Francis closed his July 5-13 visit to Latin America surrounded by those he loves the most: the poorest of the poor, families, and youth.
Among other things, the pontiff said that a Catholic who goes to Mass on Sunday but is unaware of the plight of the poor in their own city has a faith that is “weak, ill, or dead.”
He wrapped up the trip talking about the resilience of the poor as an example of hope, asking for a welcoming Church that doesn’t impose the faith on others, and asking youth to pray for “a free and generous heart” as well as “the willingness to fight for the strength to overcome life’s difficulties.”
The pontiff began Sunday in a wetland community called Bañado Norte, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Asuncion, which for decades has suffered floods and mud avalanches as a result of its proximity to the Paraguay River.
“To see your faces, your children, your elderly, and to hear about your experiences and everything you went through makes me think of the little family of Bethlehem,” Francis said, referring to the infant Jesus and his parents, St. Joseph and St. Mary.
Thousands of faithful gathered to see him, many having camped out for days, hoping to be close enough to him that they’d be able to tell him about what they call “the real slum” in which they live. Local press reports featured complaints from residents that the government performed a cosmetic make-over of the settlement, failing to solve issues such as a lack of sewers and paved roads.
“Your struggles have not taken away your laughter, your joy, and your hope,” the pope said, saying the struggles of the poor “have not lessened your sense of solidarity, but, if anything, have made it grow.”
He told the inhabitants of Bañado Norte to stay strong in their faith, letting it “awaken” their sense of solidarity.
“A faith which does not draw us into solidarity is a faith which is dead,” he said. “It is a faith without Christ, a faith without God.”
Soon after, Francis celebrated the last Mass of the trip, in Asuncion’s Ñu Guasu Park, a field inside a former military airbase. The celebration was attended by more than 1.2 million people, including thousands of families coming from the pope’s native Argentina, some of whom drove for more than 30 hours to participate in the Mass.
The Lopez family spoke to Crux on Saturday night as they were walking to the park, carrying sleeping bags, food, and Francis’ favorite infusion, mate tea.
“We couldn’t not come, our pope is here,” one of the three children said, excited over the idea of camping outside as they waited for Mass.
Hundreds spent the vigil on the field, despite the rain, the mud, and the snakes, common inhabitants of the park.
From a 60 x 150-foot altar built with corn, small coconuts, gourds, squash, and seeds, Francis described the Church as a mother with an open heart, who welcomes and accepts those in need of greater care, nurturing people “like Mary did.”
“How much good we can do, if only we try to speak the language of hospitality, of welcome!” he said. “How much pain can be soothed, how much despair can be allayed!”
The pope said the Church welcomes the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, the leper, and the paralytic, those who think differently, the persecuted, the unemployed, and the faithless.
The Church is mother, he said, “welcoming sinners.”
Toward the end of his homily, Francis called for greater efforts in spreading the Gospel, cautioning that no one should be forced to receive and welcome evangelization.
However, he said, “Neither can anyone force us not to be welcoming, hospitable in the lives of our people. No one can tell us not to accept and embrace the lives of our brothers and sisters, especially those who have lost hope and zest for life.”
He also said missionary work shouldn’t be reduced to plans and programs, strategies, tactics, maneuvers, or techniques, “as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments.” The Gospel is clear, Francis said, “you convince [people] by learning how to welcome them.”
As a footnote, the 200,000 coconuts used for the altar were signed by families in Paraguay that equated them to lighting a candle in a church, asking for particular intentions. Most of the material used will then be used to feed cattle and chickens, since they aren’t fit for human consumption.
In the last stop Francis made before getting on the plane back to Rome, he met with 200,000 young people at the riverside.
Despite having a text in hand, the pontiff seemed moved by the questions posed by three teenagers. He quipped that “speeches are boring,” and recommended that the young people should read his prepared remarks, which he handed to the local bishop.
Off the cuff, Francis told those present to ask God every day for “freedom of heart, a deep sense of solidarity, [and] the hope and the strength to fight for life and to overcome difficult situations.”
He offered the example of Manuel, a young man who told the pope about having been exploited, mistreated, left alone, and at risk of falling prey to addiction.
“Instead of going out to do wrong, to steal, he went out to work,” Francis said. “Instead of trying to get revenge, he moved on, despite going through a situation in which it’s hard to think about having a future.”
“How many of you,” the pope asked, “have the opportunity to go to school, to go back home, and sit at the table with your family, with the essential needs covered?”
“Give thanks to the Lord, because we just heard the testimony of a boy who didn’t have that! Pray to God, so that he saves those who’re in these situations, and those of you who aren’t, give thanks!”
“I want for you to understand this, to get it into your heads: Life isn’t easy for everyone,” he said. “Some are pushed into delinquency, into corruption. We need to tell them that we’re close to them, that we want to help them, with solidarity, with love [and] with hope.”
“Hope and strength, that’s what we need from the youth today!” the pontiff said.