ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — To this day, people debate whether the 18th century Jesuit missions in South America were a great social experiment, or a theocratic reign of terror. The 1986 Hollywood movie “The Mission,” starring Jeremy Irons, represents the former view, while some indigenous critics speak for the latter.
On Saturday in Paraguay, Pope Francis basically came down on Jeremy Irons’ side of that argument.
Talking to representatives of civil society, history’s first Latin American pope called the Jesuit missions “the most significant experiences of evangelization and social organization in history.”
Those missions, known as “reductions,” utilized slave labor and demanded conversion of the native people to Christianity, but did not insist they adopt European culture or values and also afforded the natives, particularly the Guarani peoples of modern-day Paraguay, protection from the worst colonial abuses.
“[In the reductions] the Gospel was the soul and the life of communities which did not know hunger, unemployment, illiteracy or oppression,” Francis said.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, 30 Jesuit reductions were created in Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Francis’ native Argentina.
For many, the missions in South America were the only thing protecting the Indians from being sold as slaves in Brazil. In some countries, such as Argentina, they offered protection from a government that killed the native communities soon after the Jesuits were expelled.
Francis’ comments came only two days after he apologized for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America, talking in a similar meeting in Bolivia.
Answering a young man named Gabriel Saucedo, who asked him about what can Paraguay do to build a fraternal and just society in a country that is marred by social inequality, with 50 percent of the society living under poverty line, Francis called the youth to resist the growing mentality which considers it useless to aspire to things that demand effort.
“Be committed to something, be committed to someone,” Francis told him. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t be afraid to give the best of yourselves in the game of life! But don’t take shortcuts, don’t buy off the referee.”
He also called the youth not to do it alone, but learning from the generations that preceded them and with Jesus.
“Jesus, in the memory of your people, is the secret to keeping a joyful heart in your quest for fraternity, justice, peace, and dignity for everyone” the pope said.
Going off script, something he did throughout his 40-minute speech several times, Francis said that building a more just society is something that has to be built “day by day,” not being afraid of “getting in the action, putting the hands in the dough, taking concrete actions.”
He then “admitted” that he gets allergies, “a running nose,” when people such as politicians give grandiose speeches but “when I meet these people, I can’t help thinking ‘what a big liar you are.’”
He also called for the members of the civil society to dialogue with each other, but calling for an open conversation that isn’t a negotiation.
Francis also invited everyone present to welcome the “the cry of the poor to build a more inclusive society.” He said that a fundamental part of helping the poor involves the way they are perceived.
“An ideological approach is useless: it ends up using the poor in the service of other political or personal interest,” he said.
“Ideologies end badly, they do not work because they have a relationship that is either incomplete, or sick or wrong with the people,” Francis said. “Look at the last century, what ideologies ended in: Dictatorships, always.”
Francis then said that ideologies think of the people, but don’t let the people think, everything for the people but nothing with the people.
“The poor have much to teach us about humanity, goodness, and sacrifice. As Christians, we have an additional reason to love and serve the poor; for in them we see the face and the flesh of Christ,” inviting those present to fight against “the dictatorship of the faceless economy.”
Towards the end of his speech, he addressed local politicians off the cuff, including President Horacio Cartes who was present at the Leon Condou Stadium.
He said that as he was walking into the stadium, someone told him about a person who had been “abducted” by the army.
“I don’t know if it is true or not, but this was one of the methods used in last century’s dictatorships: Putting people aside, repressing them or killing them in concentration camps, like the Nazis,” Francis said.
Francis also spoke about extortion, describing it as a method that doesn’t give people the freedom to take on their responsibilities in society.
“Extortion is still corruption, and corruption is the gangrene of a people,” Francis said, in a country ranked among the most corrupt in the world – 150 of 175, according to Transparency.org).
After everything was said and done, and Francis was presented with a set of local crafts, he went back to the microphone to offer one last piece of advice.
“The worst thing that can happen to each one of you is that when you leave this place you think, ‘The pope was talking to this or that guy.’ If anyone of you thinks like that, stop it.”
“Who was the pope talking to? To me!” Francis concluded.