TEMUCO, Chile – Having spent day one of his three-day visit to Chile largely dealing with one bitter legacy here, meaning the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, Pope Francis on Wednesday turned to another – Chile’s troubled history of oppression of its indigenous peoples, which still today fuels deep political resentments and occasional violence.
He did so in a very special landmark: the Maquehue Airport, once an infamous detention and torture center during the years of Chile’s military government under Augusto Pinochet.
In the context of that legacy, Francis issued a stirring call for unity as the alternative to what he termed the “deforestation of hope.”
Francis traveled to Temuco in Chile’s Araucanía region, marked by stunning landscapes and virgin forests but also by the country’s most endemic poverty. It’s inhabited by several of its indigenous communities, including the Mapuche, whose resentments over the years have sometimes turned violent.
Just before the pope was scheduled to arrive, two churches were firebombed in the Araucanía region, bringing to nine the total of Catholic churches that have been attacked in recent days. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility, in the past Mapuche activists sometimes have assaulted churches to press their cause.
Looking around, Francis summed it all up with a line from the late Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra: “Arauco has a sorrow that cannot be silenced, the injustices of centuries that everyone sees taking place.”
During the weeks previous to the visit, some within the Mapuche community raised their voices against the use of the airport for the Mass both because of the violations of human rights committed in this land, something the pope acknowledged, and also because they consider it ancestral land and want the government to return it to them.
A source from the organization of the trip told Crux that some see the Mass the pope celebrated as a sign of reparation and healing, much like the 1987 Mass John Paul II held in the National Soccer Stadium, Pinochet’s most infamous torture center where hundreds were killed.
In light of that history, Francis said he was offering the Mass “for all those who suffered and died, and for those who daily bear the burden of those many injustices.”
Francis laid out a vision of unity for Chile, one that embraces its indigenous persons without suffocating their cultures.
“Jesus does not ask his Father that all may be equal, identical, for unity is not meant to neutralize or silence differences,” Francis said. “Unity is not an idol or the result of forced integration; it is not a harmony bought at the price of leaving some people on the fringes.”
“Unity,” the pontiff said, “can never be a stifling uniformity imposed by the powerful, or a segregation that does not value the goodness of others.”
The site of the Mass in many ways reflected the diversity, with people of all ages and backgrounds present, including large groups of people who came in from Argentina to see history’s first Argentine pope.
During the Mass, after the pope’s opening prayer, a group of Mapuche dressed in traditional outfits, sang a prayer in their language, Mapudungun.
The pope began his homily with a traditional greeting in said language, mari mari, which loosely translates to “your ten good wishes you give me, my ten good wishes I give you.”
Francis invoked a garment used among the Mapuche of Araucanía, the chamal, as a symbol of unity, saying that weavers have to blend different colors and materials without losing what makes them distinct.
“We need the riches that each people has to offer, and we must abandon the notion that there are higher or lower cultures,” he said.
“The art of unity requires true artisans who know how to harmonize differences in the ‘design’ of towns, roads, squares and landscapes,” the pope said. “It is not ‘desk art,’ or paperwork; it is a craft demanding attention and understanding. That is the source of its beauty, but also of its resistance to the passage of time and to whatever storms may come its way.”
Having laid out his vision, Francis then addressed two sorts of violence which, he warned, can derail it.
First, he said, is the violence of “elegant agreements that will never be put into practice,” thereby falsely stoking people’s hopes for change only to see them disappointed.
“Nice words, detailed plans – necessary as these are – but, when unimplemented, end up ‘erasing with the elbow, what was written by the hand’,” the pope said.
“This is one kind of violence, because it frustrates hope,” he said.
Many said agreements have been drafted in recent years in Chile, including one in 2017. A dialogue table that included both Mapuche and members of the government, and was mediated by the local Catholic bishop, produced a 60-point agreement. Even though it wasn’t as far-reaching as the locals had hoped, all of the points were accepted by unanimity.
The second form of violence to which the pope objected is the more customary, physical sort.
“A culture of mutual esteem may not be based on acts of violence and destruction that end up taking human lives,” Francis said.
“You cannot assert yourself by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division. Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation,” he said using language with clear resonance in a land where various armed groups often claim to be carrying out acts of violence in the name of indigenous rights.
“Violence,” Francis warned, “eventually makes a most just cause into a lie.”
Though a reference to physical violence can be applied to many conflicts, in the case of the Mapuche it’s directly related to the fact that some small pockets of the community have resorted to violence to make their argument. This includes burning down churches, attacking trucks owned by forestall companies and setting farms on fire.
“Those two approaches are like the lava of a volcano that wipes out and burns everything in its path, leaving in its wake only barrenness and desolation,” Francis warned the congregation Wednesday morning, urging them instead to strive to be “artisans of peace.”
Francis’s emphasis on the dignity and human rights of the country’s indigenous persons was in keeping with the priorities laid out for the Jan. 15-18 trip to Chile, as well as his subsequent stop in Peru, by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s top diplomat as his Secretary of State.
Before Francis departed for his sixth voyage to his native Latin America, Parolin told reporters that the two issues that would look especially large on the outing were indigenous rights and the struggle against corruption, which the pontiff diagnoses as a serious impediment to development.
After the Mass, Francis was scheduled to have lunch with several indigenous inhabitants of Araucanía.
Later tonight, once he’s back in Santiago, the Chilean capital, the pontiff was scheduled to address the country’s youth.