PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru — Speaking to children at a home for orphaned and abandoned children on Friday, Pope Francis said they have much to offer the world by being themselves and sharing their experiences.
“The world needs you, young men and women … and it needs you as you are. Do not be content to be the last car on the train of society, letting yourselves be pulled along and eventually disconnected. We need you to be the engine, always pressing forward,” the Pope said Jan. 19.
“Share what you learn with the world, because the world needs you to be yourselves, who you really are, and not an imitation of someone else. We need you to be authentic, young men and women who are proud to belong to the Amazonian peoples and who can offer humanity an alternative for a true life.”
Francis spoke at the Hogar Principito (“Little Prince Home”) in Puerto Maldonado on the second day of his Jan. 18-21 visit to Peru. The children’s home was founded in 1996 to help deal with the high rate of neglect and child exploitation that occur in the city.
It currently houses around 40 children and adolescents, who have come from orphanages, at-risk families or illegal mining camps. Some have been abandoned or been victims of physical, sexual or psychological abuse.
Pope Francis met with the children and their caretakers on the basketball court of the home.
Before his speech, he was greeted by the director of the home, Father Xavier Arbex, and listened to the testimony of Dirsey Irarica Piña, a woman who was raised in the home. He also watched performances by the children of songs and a choreographed dance.
Irarica described having been orphaned at the age of 11 and being welcomed into the Hogar Principito a couple of years later, saying the home “was ready immediately to give me the fullness of support and love. … I thank my teachers and the ‘little father’ for filling this void in me. Thank you for this unconditional love that makes us feel at home.”
She now lives in Tacna, where she works and studies psychology.
In his address after listening to Irarica, the Pope referenced the recent celebration of Christmas, where our hearts were touched by the coming of the Child Jesus.
“He is our treasure. You children are his reflection, and you, too, are a treasure for all of us, the most precious treasure that we have and one that we are called to guard,” Francis said.
He asked forgiveness for the times that adults have neglected to care for them and protect them as they deserve, saying how their lives demand a greater commitment and effort on the part of everyone — that we do not remain indifferent to children who suffer and are in need.
“Without a doubt, you are the greatest treasure that is ours to care for,” he underlined.
Speaking to Irarica, he said she was brave to share that sometimes she feels very hurt and misses her father and mother.
“You told me; ‘I hope my message may be a light of hope,’” the Pope referenced. “But let me tell you something: Your life, your words, and the lives of all of you, are a light of hope.”
He said a wonderful witness “is offered by all of you young people who have traveled this road, who found love in this home and now are able to shape your own future! You demonstrate to all of us the enormous potential of each person. For these boys and girls, you are the best example to follow, a sign of hope that they will be able to do the same. We all need good role models: Children need to look to the future and have positive role models.”
“Everything that you young people can do, like coming here to be with them, to play and spend time together, is important,” Pope Francis said. “Be for them, as the Little Prince says: the little stars that light up the night,” referring to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry character for whom the children’s home is named.
The Pope went on to note how the children who came from indigenous communities may have been witness to the destruction of their homeland, saying: “Today those woodlands have been laid waste by the intoxication of a misguided notion of progress.”
“Young people, do not be resigned to what is happening! Do not renounce the legacy you have received from your elders or your lives and dreams.”
He also encouraged them to study and to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them.
“Listen to your elders; value their traditions; do not curb your curiosity. Get in touch with your roots, but at the same time open your eyes to new things; bring the old and the new together in your own way,” he encouraged.
Society often needs correction and you, young people, can help greatly with this, he said, “by teaching us a way of life based on protection and care, not on the destruction of everything that stands in the way of our greed.”
Pope Francis also visited one of Peru’s most biodiverse regions Friday, telling its inhabitants that while remote, their land is not forgotten and must be cared for.
He also stressed the importance of fighting such scourges as corruption and human trafficking.
“‘We are not a no-man’s-land.’ It is something that needs to be emphasized. You are not a no-man’s-land. This land has names. It has faces. It has you,” the Pope said Jan. 19 to the people of Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios Region in the Amazon basin.
He was responding to a comment made by a local couple, Margarita Martínez Núñez Valer and her husband, Arturo, who, while sharing their testimony, said their land is one “that is mostly forgotten, wounded and marginalized ... but we are not a no-man’s-land.”
Pope Francis noted that Mary also came from Nazareth, a remote and isolated village that many also considered “a no-man’s-land.”
Mary, he said, is not only an example, but a mother, and when we have a mother, “we don’t have that terrible feeling of belonging to no one that takes hold when our sense of belonging to a family, to a people, to a land, to our God, begins to fade.”
The Madre de Dios Region, then, “is not a land of orphans, but a land that has a Mother! And if it has a mother, it has sons and daughters, a family, a community.” While the problems might not disappear, when there is a mother, a family and a community, “we certainly find the strength to confront them differently.”
Held in the city’s Jorge Basadre Institute, the encounter with the people of Puerto Maldonado began with a greeting from Bishop David Martinez de Aguirre Guinea, apostolic vicar of Puerto Maldonado, and the testimony of a catechist.
Francis said it is painful for him to see how some people seek to exploit the territory and therefore make Madre de Dios “a nameless land, without children, a barren land.”
Referring to what he has often dubbed the “throwaway culture,” he said this is a mentality that isn’t satisfied with simple exclusion, but continues to advance “by silencing, ignoring and throwing out everything that does not serve its interests; as if the alienating consumerism of some is completely unaware of the desperate suffering of others.”
“It is an anonymous culture, without bonds, without faces,” and which only wants to consume, he said, adding that both land and people are treated according to the same logic: “Forests, rivers and streams are exploited mercilessly, then left barren and unusable,” while people are “used until someone gets tired of them, then abandoned.”
He then spoke out against the temptation of corruption and the practice of human trafficking, saying forcefully that the term “slavery” should be used instead: “We have become accustomed to using the term ‘human trafficking,’ but in truth we should speak of slavery: slavery for work, sexual slavery, slavery for profit.”
“It is painful to see how in this land … so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence. Violence against women cannot be treated as ‘normal,’ maintaining a culture of machismo blind to the leading role that women play in our communities. It is not right for us to look the other way and let the dignity of so many women, especially young women, be trampled upon.”
He noted that many people, desperate to escape poverty, come to the area to work in the gold mines, but he cautioned that gold can quickly turn into “a false god that demands human sacrifices.”
“False gods, the idols of avarice, money and power corrupt everything. They corrupt people and institutions, and they ruin the forest,” he said, adding that Christ called these “demons that require much prayer to expel.”
The Pope then urged the community to continue forming movements and organizations aimed at overcoming the plagues of corruption and trafficking. “I likewise encourage you to gather, as people of faith and vibrant ecclesial communities, around the person of Jesus,” he said.
“Through heartfelt prayer and hope-filled encounter with Christ, we will be able to attain the conversion that leads us to true life. Jesus promised us true life, authentic life, eternal life — not a make-believe life, like the one offered by all those dazzling false promises; they promise life but lead us to death.”
Salvation, he said, “is not something generic or abstract. Our Father looks at real people, with real faces and histories. Every Christian community must be a reflection of this gaze, this presence that creates bonds and generates family and community. It is a way of making visible the kingdom of heaven, in communities where everyone feels a part of the whole, where they feel called by name and encouraged to be a builder of life for others.”
Pope Francis closed his speech telling the people they live in one of “the most exuberant explosions of life on our planet,” and urged them to love the land and to “realize that it belongs to you. Breathe it in; listen to it; marvel at it.”
“Fall in love with this land called ‘Madre de Dios’ — commit yourself to it and care for it,” he said, and “do not use this land as a mere disposable object, but as a genuine treasure to be enjoyed, cultivated and entrusted to your children.”