SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Following the lead of pontiffs before him, Pope Francis apologized Thursday for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America, and repeated calls for economic justice for the world’s poor.

“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God,” Francis said Thursday. “Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church ‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.’”

However, he said, it’s also important to remember the many bishops, priests, and laity who dedicated their lives work to promoting the human person, “often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying their popular movements even to the point of martyrdom.”

He said, too, that “thousands of priests” had “strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross.”

“But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples,” he said.

Francis’ words come only months before he beatifies Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, during his trip to the United States next September. Serra is celebrated as the founder of the Catholic Church on the West Coast, but he’s also derided by critics as the “Columbus of California” for his role in decimating the native population.

“The Church, her sons and daughters, are part of the identity of the peoples of Latin America,” Francis said in Bolivia. He added that it’s an identity which “here, as in other countries” some powers are committed to erasing, because “our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of mammon.”

“Mammon” is a Biblical term for money.

As he’s done previously, Francis denounced a “third world war being fought piecemeal,” with a form of genocide against Christians taking place in the Middle East and elsewhere that, he said, “must end.”

Francis was addressing a Meeting of Popular Movements, a collection of non-governmental organizations, especially prominent in Latin America, representing street sellers, fishermen, laborers, farmers, members of the “original peoples” and “cartoneros,” or people who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods. More than 1,500 delegations from 40 countries participated in the meeting, including Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was sporting a jacket with a picture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The first Meeting of Popular Movements took place on Vatican grounds last October.

The 55-minute long speech was among the longest Francis has delivered, which he acknowledged about halfway through it, joking, “the priest goes on for a long time, right?”

Francis said the aim of his speech was to join the three-day long discussion being held at Santa Cruz’s convention center, Expo Feria, with “the best ways to overcome the grave situations of injustice experienced by the excluded throughout our world.”

Let us begin, Francis said, “by acknowledging that change is needed,” saying that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, families without homes, laborers without rights, persons whose dignity is not respected, so many senseless wars being fought, and so many acts fratricidal violence are taking place.

To avoid any “misunderstanding,” the pope said he was talking about problems common to Latin Americans, but also to humanity as a whole, “global problems which today no one state can resolve on its own.”

“I wonder whether we can see that these destructive realities are part of a system which has become global,” Francis said. “Do we realize that the system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?”

Francis called for a structural “process of change” because “this system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable… The earth itself also finds it intolerable.”

Francis said that he had no “recipe” for change, but proposed three tasks that demand a decisive and shared contribution from popular movements:

  • Put the economy at the service of peoples
  • Unite our peoples on the path of peace and justice
  • Defend Mother Earth.

The pope said human beings and nature must not be at the service of money, adding that a communitarian economy of Christian inspiration must ensure peoples’ dignity and their “general, temporal welfare and prosperity”.

This aim, he said, includes access to labor, lodging, and land, but also to education, health care, new technologies, artistic and cultural opportunities, communications, sports, and recreation.

An inclusive economy, Francis said, isn’t one ruled by welfare programs, saying these can only be considered temporary responses.

“They will never be able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidary work,” he said.

Talking about the path of peace and justice, Francis said that the world’s peoples want to be the artisans of their own destiny, denouncing present forms of colonialism that “seriously prejudice the possibility of peace and justice.”

The world’s people, Francis said, don’t want forms of tutelage or interference by which those with greater power subordinate those who have less.

“No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty,” he said.

Acknowledging the need for coordinated international action against corruption, drug dealing, and terrorism, Francis denounced measures that are unrelated to the solution of these issues. Those comments echo similar statements he’s made in the past, condemning practices such as tying family planning resources to foreign aid.

Similarly, he added, media conglomerates seek to impose alienating examples of consumerism and a cultural uniformity is a new form of colonialism, “ideological colonialism,” as the pope put it.

Just weeks after the release of his encyclical Laudato Si’, the first dedicated entirely to the environment, Francis once again said “our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity.”

“Cowardice in defending [nature] is a grave sin,” he said. He also said that there’s an “ethical imperative” to implement measures to protect it.

Francis told those present, mostly members of the “outskirts of society,” that the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders and the elites, but in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.

“Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age,” Francis said.