Pope Francis on Sunday made a surprise visit to Rome’s Villa Borghese park for a celebration of Italy’s Earth Day, sponsored in part by the Catholic Focolare movement. In vintage Francis style, he had a prepared text but abandoned it when he took the stage, delivering an entirely impromptu set of remarks.

The pope was accompanied by Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number two official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and was welcomed by Italian lay woman Maria Voce, head of the Focolare, a Catholic movement born amid the Second World War that stresses unity within the human family.

Among other things, the Focolare are known for inter-religious dialogue, prison ministry, and concern for creation, three points stressed by Pope Francis in his talk. Today the Focolare are present in 182 nations, with more than 100,000 followers.

The visit also featured remarks by Father Maurizio Patriciello, a pastor from Naples and a hero to people who live in a zone called the “land of fires,” infamous for an elevated level of cancer deaths linked to environmental pollution.

The Vatican issued a working transcript of the pope’s talk on Sunday. The following is a Crux translation of that transcript.

Pope’s Remarks at the Mariapoli al Galoppatoio in Villa Borghese

Thanks much for everything, and now I’ll do a little improvisation. I’ll leave aside what I wrote down to say to you, and say instead what comes to me …

Listening to you speak, two images came to me: The desert, and the forest. I thought, these people, all of you, all, are taking up the desert in order to transform it into a forest. They go where there’s desert, where there isn’t hope, and they do things to make a forest of this desert. The forest is full of trees, it’s full of vegetation, but too disorganized … but, life is like that. Passing from the desert to the forest is the beautiful work you do! You transform deserts into forests! (applause) Then, one can see how to regulate certain things in the forest … but there’s life in it, while in the desert there’s death.

There are many deserts in the cities, deserts in people’s lives who don’t have a future, because there’s always – and I’ll underline a word here – always there are prejudices, fears. These people live and die in the desert of the cities. You perform a miracle with your work of changing the desert into a forest: Go forward that way.

What’s your plan of work? I don’t know … We’re approaching you, and we’ll see what we can do. Life has to be taken as it comes. It’s like a goaltender in soccer: You have to take the ball where it’s kicked … it comes from here and there. But you must not be afraid of life, or afraid of conflicts …

One time someone said to me – I don’t know if it’s true, if someone wants to investigate do it, I’ve never looked into whether it’s true or not – that the word “conflict” in Chinese is made up of two characters: one that means “risk,” and the other that means “opportunity.” Conflict, it’s true, is a risk, but it’s also an opportunity.
We can react to conflict as something from which we distance ourselves … We Christians know well what the Levite did, what the doctor of the law did, with the poor man who fell along the street. They took the path of not seeing, and not getting involved. Whoever doesn’t take risks, can never get close to reality: to know reality, to know it in one’s heart, it’s necessary to get close. That’s a risk, but it’s also an opportunity: for me, and for the person whom I approach. For me, and for the community I approach. I think of the witness you give, for example, in prisons, with all your work.

Conflict: never, never, never, turn away in order not to see conflict.

Conflict has to be faced, evils have to be faced, in order to resolve them.

The desert is ugly, both the desert in the heart of all of us, as well as the desert in the city, in the peripheries, which is also an ugly thing. There’s also a desert that’s in the gated neighborhoods … It’s ugly, but the desert is there too. We must not be afraid to go to the desert to transform it into a forest, where there’s exuberant life, and to go dry the many tears so that everyone can smile.

It makes me think a lot of that psalm of the People of Israel, while they were imprisoned in Babylon, and they said: “We can’t sing our songs, because we’re in a strange land.” They had instruments, they had arms, but they had no joy because they were hostages in a strange land. But when they were liberated, the psalm says, “they couldn’t believe it,” and “our mouth was filled with a smile.” Thus in this transition from desert to forest, to life, there’s a smile.

I’ll give you an assignment to do at home. Look at the faces of people when you go into the street: they’re worried, everyone is closed in on themselves, they lack a smile, in other words they lack tenderness, social friendship … they lack this social friendship. Where there isn’t social friendship there’s always hatred and war. We’re living a piecemeal Third World War, everywhere. Look at the geographic map of the world, and you’ll see.

Social friendship has to do with forgiveness – the first word – with forgiveness. Many times, that’s done by getting close: I approach this problem, this conflict, this difficulty, as we heard is done by these great young people in the places where there’s gambling, and so many people there lose everything, everything, everything …

In Buenos Aires I saw elderly people who went to the bank to get their pensions and then headed immediately for the casino, immediately! Getting close to a place a conflict, and these people go to get close, close …

There’s something else that has to do with games, with sport and also with art: Gratuity. Social friendship has to do with gratuity, and one has to learn the wisdom of gratuity, learn it: with play, better said with sport, with art, with the joy of being together, with getting close.

There’s a word not to forget in this world, where it seems that if you don’t pay you can’t live, where the person, the man and woman that God created to be the center of the world, to be for that matter at the center of the economy, are thrown out and instead we have at the center a god, the god of money. Today at the center of the world is the god of money, and those who can approach to adore this god … (applause) … they approach, and those who can’t finish in hunger, in illness, in exploitation … Think about the exploitation of children, of young people.

“Gratuity” is the key word. Gratuity, which makes me give my life as it is in order to go with others and make this desert become a forest: gratuity, this is a beautiful thing!

And forgiveness, also, forgive, because with forgiveness, regret and resentment fall away. Then, always “construct,” not destroy, construct …

Look, these are the things that come to my mind. How to do this? Simply in the awareness that we all have something in common, we’re all human. And in this humanity, we can get close to each other to work together … “But I belong to this religion, or to that one …” it doesn’t matter!

Let’s all go forward to work together, respecting each other, respecting! I see this miracle: the miracle of a desert that becomes a forest. Thanks for everything you do!