Reach­ing out

Pope brings ‘church for the poor’ on Ecuador, Bo­livia, Paraguay trip

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - RELIGION - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pope Fran­cis is tak­ing his “church for the poor” to three of South Amer­ica’s poor­est and most pe­riph­eral coun­tries, mak­ing a gru­el­ing, week-long trip that will show­case the pope at his un­pre­dictable best: speak­ing his na­tive Span­ish on his home turf about is­sues clos­est to his heart.

In­dige­nous peo­ples will take cen­tre stage dur­ing much of Fran­cis’ July 5-13 visit to Ecuador, Bo­livia and Paraguay, while the Fran­cis’ own Je­suit or­der will be in the spotlight for its role in evan­ge­liz­ing the con­ti­nent cen­turies ago and even to­day.

En­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns in the Ama­zon, cur­rent-day bor­der con­flicts and the re­gion’s tor­tured history with au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes are also high on the agenda as history’s first Latin Amer­i­can pope re­turns to Span­ish-speak­ing South Amer­ica for the first time since he was elected two years ago.

“He knows this re­al­ity, be­cause he worked so long with the bish­ops of Latin Amer­ica and as head of the Je­suits in Ar­gentina,” said Daniel Guss­mann, di­rec­tor of the Catholic Church’s Car­i­tas char­ity in Buenos Aires. “He knows these coun­tries, and their prob­lems with poverty and where much of the pop­u­la­tion has no ac­cess to land.”

Fran­cis will meet with the el­derly poor in Ecuador, visit Bo­livia’s no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent Pal­ma­sola prison and tour Paraguay’s flood-prone Banado Norte shan­ty­town, bring­ing a mes­sage of sol­i­dar­ity and hope to so­ci­ety’s most marginal­ized.

He’ll also pre­side over a meet­ing of grass-roots groups rep­re­sent­ing in­dige­nous peo­ples, cam­pesinos and the “car­toneros” who pick through garbage for re­cy­clable goods - groups he long min­is­tered to while work­ing in the slums of Buenos Aires as arch­bishop.

When the Vat­i­can hosted these grass­roots groups at the Vat­i­can last year, Fran­cis de­liv­ered an off-the-cuff, mini-en­cycli­cal on the rights of the poor, the in­jus­tices of un­em­ploy­ment and the need to care for God’s cre­ation - themes he’ll likely re­peat next week. He in­sisted then that he wasn’t preach­ing com­mu­nism but the Gospel.

“Fran­cis comes not to pro­tect the church but to pro­tect the poor and the Earth,” said Michael Lee, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy and Latin Amer­i­can stud­ies at Ford­ham Univer­sity. He said that rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent fo­cus from the con­cerns of his two pre­de­ces­sors, who on trips to the Amer­i­cas fo­cused more on the sur­vival of the church fac­ing a some­times hos­tile and sec­u­lar agenda and com­pe­ti­tion from other re­li­gious move­ments.

“That’s an enor­mous shift, and one that’s go­ing to be very well re­ceived in these coun­tries and by these peo­ple,” he said.

While the trip in­volves many of the di rigueur el­e­ments of all pa­pal tours - pro­to­col vis­its to heads of state, pep talks to sem­i­nar­i­ans and meet­ings with re­gional bish­ops - Fran­cis will also have some very per­sonal en­coun­ters.

He’ll lunch with a Je­suit com­mu­nity in Guayaquil, Ecuador where he has some­thing of a men­tor in an el­derly priest and where he fre­quently sent his sem­i­nar­i­ans to study. He’ll celebrate Mass at Paraguay’s shrine to the Madonna of Caacupe, to whom Fran­cis be­came par­tic­u­larly de­voted af­ter min­is­ter­ing to Paraguayan im­mi­grants in Buenos Aires. And he’ll pray at the site where a Je­suit priest, the Rev. Luis Espinal, was left in 1980 af­ter be­ing de­tained and tor­tured by Bo­livia’s paramil­i­tary squads.

It’s likely to be a poignant mo­ment, given Fran­cis’ own ex­pe­ri­ence with the right-wing mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship in neigh­bour­ing Ar­gentina. The for­mer Jorge Mario Ber­goglio was head of the Je­suit or­der there when two fel­low priests were kid­napped by the regime, which joined like-minded gov­ern­ments in Bo­livia and Paraguay to mount Op­er­a­tion Con­dor to wipe out and “dis­ap­pear” left­ist op­po­nents.

The choice of Ecuador, Bo­livia and Paraguay for Fran­cis’ first visit to Span­ish-speak­ing South Amer­ica is not hap­pen­stance. While Fran­cis vis­ited Por­tuguese-Brazil in 2013 on a trip orig­i­nally sched­uled for Pope Bene­dict XVI, this is the first one to his home con­ti­nent that he him­self has planned: Bo­livia and Paraguay are the con­ti­nent’s poor­est coun­tries, with one in four Bo­li­vians liv­ing on $2 a day, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. The coun­tries are also small in pop­u­la­tion and weight com­pared to re­gional pow­er­houses like Chile and Ar­gentina, where Fran­cis is plan­ning to visit in 2016 along with Uruguay.

“Here you see a bit the pope’s cri­te­ria: To go to visit even those coun­tries that aren’t geopo­lit­i­cally at the top rank of the world panorama,” said the Vat­i­can spokesman, the Rev. Fed­erico Lom­bardi.

It will be a gru­el­ing eight-day trip that will test the stamina of the 78-year-old Fran­cis, who has only one full lung and a bad back: It will take him across the globe to ex­tremes of al­ti­tude - from sea level to the 4,000-me­ter highs of La Paz, Bo­livia and back again - with mul­ti­ple in-coun­try flights and a dawn-to-dusk sched­ule each day.

AP PHOTO

In this file photo, Pope Fran­cis presents Paraguay’s Pres­i­dent Ho­ra­cio Cartes with the book of the gospel dur­ing a pri­vate au­di­ence at the Vat­i­can. Pope Fran­cis is tak­ing his “church for the poor” to three of South Amer­ica’s poor­est and most pe­riph­eral coun­tries, mak­ing a gru­el­ing, week-long trip that will show­case the pope at his un­pre­dictable best: speak­ing his na­tive Span­ish on his home turf about is­sues clos­est to his heart.

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