ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – Those who follow Jesus must not manipulate the faith to serve their own agenda or ideology, abusing the name of God or religion to justify “violence, segregation and even murder, exile, terrorism and marginalization,” Pope Francis said Sunday in Madagascar, speaking to a crowd estimated by organizers to be around one million people.
The gathering included tens of thousands who had slept on the diocesan grounds of Soamandrakizay to await the pope after a prayer vigil the night before. Francis told them Jesus demands that the Gospel message be neither diluted nor narrowed, charging his followers to “build history in fraternity and solidarity, in complete respect for the earth and its gifts, as opposed to any form of exploitation.”
The pontiff quoted the “Document on Human Fraternity” signed in Abu Dhabi in February on coexistence between people of different religions, particularly Christians and Muslims.
Christians, Francis said, should practice “dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; [and] reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”
The pontiff’s words came as he celebrated his only open-air Mass in Madagascar, the second stop on his Sept 4-10 tour to the “3 Ms” of the Indian Ocean, which also included Mozambique and which will take him to Mauritius on Monday.
On his way to the site, Francis had the opportunity to see both the best and the worse of Antananarivo, the country’s capital city.
The route was lined with precarious, wooden boxes posing as homes, women doing laundry in the same water they use for drinking and which they use to water the rice fields that seem to take over every flat surface in the city. He saw children manufacturing bricks and selling them, as well as children begging for food from people who don’t have enough food themselves.
But he also got to see signs of growth, with brick homes slowly replacing the wooden ones, children dressed to impress him and greet him as he passed by and people helping one another with their daily chores.
People came from all over Madagascar to partake in the Mass. As one of the pilgrims put it to Crux, not sleeping on the premises wasn’t really an option for most, as they had nowhere to go after the prayer vigil Francis led on Saturday.
Italian Bishop Rosario Saro Vella, 67, from the central diocese of Moramang, who’s been in Madagascar for the past 38 years, told Crux before the Mass that the visit will bring “a lot of hope” to the country, and that everyone, Catholics and not, got involved in preparing it.
“Madagascar is a country with many, many values, but right now, they seem to be covered by a rock,” the bishop said. “It’s an incredibly beautiful country, but when you arrive, what you see is poverty. It’s a very welcoming country, but violence is beginning to grow. It’s a country with great people, but corruption is emerging.”
The pope’s visit, Saro Vella said, will hopefully help “lift that rock,” so that the best parts of the country will be on display.
Fighting the growing corruption, he said, is something that involves the entire people, as it’s not “just about one institution being corrupt.”
“It’s necessary to educate the conscience of the people so that from a culture of ‘having’ we go to a culture of ‘sharing’,” he said. “So that from an individualistic culture, selfish, we go to one that is in solidarity with everyone.”
Perhaps picking up on that idea, the pope’s homily turned on the idea that “following Jesus is not easy,” and that for Christians, the sacrifices only make sense in the light of the “joyful celebration” of encountering Christ.
To mark the path, the pope said, Jesus left demands.
The first, he said, “has to do with family relationships.” The new life God has in store can seem “troubling and scandalously unjust” if entry to heaven is limited to bonds of blood or membership to a clan or culture.
When “family” is the decisive criterion, he said, people can end up justifying practices that lead to exclusion: “favoritism, patronage and, as a consequence, corruption.”
But for God, family goes beyond blood relations or belonging to a clan. He demands, Francis said, that those who follow him see others as their brothers and sisters, and that they care for them as if they were members of the same family, cultural or social background. Those incapable of doing so, Jesus said according to the Gospel of Luke, “cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus also demands, according to Francis, that one refuses to believe that everything depends “exclusively on our efforts and resources,” which can lead to increasing “selfishness and our willingness to use immoral means.”
Christ demands to those who follow him to rediscover how to be grateful and to recognize that more than “personal triumph, our life and our talents are the fruit of a gift.”
The temptation of living in our own little universe, Francis said, leaves little room for other people, which means that the poor no longer enter in our lives, the voice of God is no longer heard and enjoying the quiet of his love becomes impossible. Self-centered people are no longer eager to do good.
Even though this shutting off of oneself can give an apparent sense of security, he added, it only makes people bitter, querulous and lifeless.
An estimated 70 percent of the population of Madagascar suffers from extreme poverty, living on less than $2 a day. Life expectancy is 65, 12 years less than in the United States.
Since it became independent in 1960, Madagascar has been plagued by political instability and violence, which has delayed its development, scaring foreign investors and tourists. The country has some of Africa’s most beautiful beaches with fine white sand and turquoise waters.
Most of Madagascar’s 25 million inhabitants live off of agriculture, cultivating vanilla and coffee but also rice and the country’s famous chocolate. But the income sources are unstable due to the region’s exposure to natural disasters.
According to a report from 2015, only 15 percent of the population has electricity in their homes, and close to half of the country’s children suffer from severe malnutrition.
Hence, the pope’s closing words weren’t surprising: “As we look around us, how many men and women, young people and children are suffering and in utter need! This is not part of God’s plan.”
“In the face of contempt for human dignity, we often remain with arms folded or stretched out as a sign of our frustration before the grim power of evil,” Francis said. “Yet we Christians cannot stand with arms folded in indifference, or with arms outstretched in helplessness. No. As believers, we must stretch out our hands, as Jesus does with us.”
Later in the day, Francis was scheduled to visit Akamasoa, a city within a city born of a solidarity movement created by Father Pedro Opeka, who had the pope as a professor during his seminary years. He’s credited with helping lift some 25,000 people from extreme poverty.
On Monday, Francis will fly to the neighboring island nation of Mauritius, and then on Tuesday, fly back to Rome.