ROME— At one point in the 1986 movie “The Mission,” a Roman cardinal tasked with inspecting (and ultimately suppressing) Catholic missions in the New World, deeply impressed by what he’s seen, says in admiration, “With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the entire continent.”
Although it’s far from being the film’s most quoted line, it’s fitting to capture what’s happened in Rome in the past two weekends.
During the past twelve months, according to official Vatican numbers, an estimated twenty million people have come to Italy to participate in the Jubilee Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis, which is coming to an end November 20.
Although pilgrims from all walks of life have taken part in what are known as the “major events,” such as the canonization of Mother Teresa or the Jubilee Year for Priests, when setting up the calendar, Francis intentionally left two groups he cares for the most to the end: the imprisoned, and the poor.
Last weekend, 1,000 prison inmates from around the world, including some 50 from the United States, travelled to Rome with their families, along with people who work in the penitentiary system and as prison chaplains. Throughout the year, Francis also made private phone calls to inmates on death row, and is known to have kept in touch with prisoners he met back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The document with which he opened the Holy Year of Mercy had a whole section dedicated to inmates, so it was only fitting the pope, who’s made it a point to visit a prison during most of his foreign trips, would appeal to governments from around the world to release “our brothers and sisters in prison,” so they could meet him in Rome.
During a Mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica, he called for improvement in the conditions of prisons so that “the human dignity of the detainees is fully respected.” He’s called for the “competent civil authorities” to consider granting clemency detainees suitable for benefiting from such a provision, and he’s once again reiterated his invitation to end the death penalty.
Yet beyond political messages, Francis wanted to meet with prisoners as a pastor and to remind them that God’s mercy knows no jail bars: “God hopes! His mercy gives him no rest. He is like that Father in the parable who keeps hoping for the return of his son who has fallen by the wayside.”
“God does not rest until he finds the sheep that was lost,” he said. “So, if God hopes, then no one should lose hope.”
This weekend, Francis’s attention turned to the poor and marginalized.
On Friday, the pope welcomed 6,000 poor people to the Vatican, most homeless men and women from around Europe. They poured in from France, Germany, Portugal, England, Spain and Poland, and made the trip thanks to the financial support of charitable organizations.
It wasn’t just people suffering from poverty, however. Other categories of oft-abandoned and overlooked people were included, such as people with physical and mental disabilities.
Their jubilee, formally described as the one for Socially Excluded People, included an audience with Francis on Friday, prayer vigils around Rome that same day, participating in the monthly Saturday jubilee audience with the pope, titled “Mercy and Inclusion,” and a Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, presided over by the pontiff.
On Saturday afternoon, keeping up with the pope’s logic of inviting the homeless of Rome to the Sistine Chapel because they too can appreciate beauty and art, famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone offered a concert at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall titled “For the poor and with the poor.”
Although VIP seatings went to the homeless, the concert was open to all. The entrance was free, yet those in attendance were invited to make a donation. Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, head of the Vatican office in charge of the jubilee, announced the proceedings will be used to sustain two charitable projects Francis wants to donate to Africa as physical reminders of the jubilee.
“It was just that tonight they were the protagonist,” Fisichella said. “However, poverty extends beyond this city. For this reason, the pope wanted to leave symbols of this jubilee in Uganda and Burkina Faso.”
No further details have been revealed regarding these projects.
Among other things, Morricone composed the soundtrack for “The Mission,” which starred Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. The film tells the story of the 18th century Spanish Jesuits – Pope Francis’s religious order – and their fight to protect Latin American indigenous populations from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.
“These missions have provided a refuge for the Indians against the worst depredations of the settlers and have earned much resentment because of it,” one of the characters says at the beginning of the film. “The noble souls of these Indians incline towards music.”
As a mental exercise, replace the words “missions” with “Vatican,” and “Indians” with “poor,” and one gets a sense of what Francis aimed to do this weekend. And more so, at large, if one uses “Christianity.”
The poor represent one of the church’s main concerns, because as the pontiff told the homeless, they’re at the heart of the Gospel. As an institution, it’s widely recognized as if not the largest, certainly one of the largest private charitable forces in the world.
Yet Francis believes much more is yet to be done.
“I apologize in the name of Christians who don’t read the Gospel finding poverty in the center,” he said.
“I ask for forgiveness for all the times that Christians in front of a poor person or in a situation of poverty, looked the other way. Forgive us. Your forgiveness towards men and women of the Church, who don’t want to look at you or didn’t want to look at you, is like holy water for us.”
He continued saying that their forgiveness is a reminder of the need to build a poor church for the poor, something Francis has been advocating since the very first days of his papacy.
“Every man or woman of any religion has to see in each poor person the message of God coming closer and who becomes poor to accompany us in life,” he said.
The pope’s improvised remarks came after he’d listened to the stories of two homeless people, one of whom spoke about being the same as everyone else, having dreams, hopes, and passions.
“Poverty is in the heart of the Gospel,” the pope insisted, noting that people followed Christ “because they dreamed, because he healed them, he served them, and, in the end, he freed them.”
In his address on Friday, Francis clearly meant to encourage the homeless by talking to them about the dignity of every human life, regardless of their situation, about God’s love for them and urging them not to give up on their dreams.
Yet he also urged them, as he’s often done, not to see themselves as a problem or a burden to society, but as part of the solution.
For instance, the pope acknowledged that as homeless people they’ve led a hard life, but that even in their hardship, the poor find someone who’s in a worse situation and that the knowledge of hardship actually makes the poor more prone to being charitable.
“When there’s too much wealth, one forgets about being charitable because we’re used to not lacking anything,” the pope said. “Thank you for that witness you give. Teach, teach solidarity to the world.”
Christian, one of the two men who addressed the pope, spoke about having found peace in finding Jesus, and then urged Francis to continue working towards world peace.
The pontiff put the ball back in Christian’s court by saying that war is the biggest poverty, and that being urged to work for peace by someone who’s suffered material poverty packs a punch.
“The peace which, for us Christians, began in a stable with a marginalized family, is the peace that God wants for each one of his children. And you, from your poverty, your situation, are, can be builders of peace,” he said.
Wars, the pontiff continued, are waged among rich people to have more, to possess more territory, more power, more money. According to Francis, it’s both sad and rare to see poor people at war with each other, because of their own poverty they are prone to be builders of peace.
“Religions need to grow in peace, because every religion is a messenger of peace, but they must grow in peace,” he said. “Each one of you helps from your own religion. That peace that comes from suffering, from the heart, looking for the harmony given by dignity.”