Pope Francis’ South America Homecoming: A Whirlwind of Joy

NEWS ANALYSIS: But the Holy Father made it clear during last week’s trip that he will bring a challenging moral and economic message to the U.S. this fall.

(photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

WASHINGTON — Binge-watching Pope Francis barnstorm through three Latin-American countries earlier in July was like watching the Holy Spirit in high gear.

It also revealed the Pope’s economic and environmental program as particularly challenging for the United States — which might make his upcoming visit in September more tough love than love fest.

Divine grace is the best explanation for the Holy Father’s boundless, ageless stamina; the flawless organization of a complex schedule; the soaring beauty of each Mass; several profound talks per day, covering every major theme of this papacy; and the harmony of massive crowds — old and young, patiently waiting along roads, on rooftops, in soggy fields and overnight, all for a glimpse of Christ’s envoy on earth.

“Catholicism Alive: Buoyant and Existential!” could have been the news crawl running under live streams of the Pope’s pastoral visit on EWTN. 


Mary Is Mother

Poignant moments abounded.

At the first Mass, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Pope Francis gave a moving homily on Mary’s actions at the Wedding Feast at Cana, seamlessly shifting between the Bible story and contemporary family life.

Like a determined teacher, the Pope led the million-person assembly in repeating, “Mary is a mother!” several times.

The homily resolved in an almost mystical place: “Say it to yourselves, in your hearts: The best wine is yet to come. Whisper it to the hopeless and the loveless. Have patience, hope, and follow Mary’s example; pray, open your heart, because the best wine is yet to come.”

That night, in the square outside of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito, the Holy Father led the Hail Mary, as he had the night before.

Signs of the country’s major export were also seen: Flower petals were tossed at the popemobile, and a giant hummingbird made of roses adorned the altar in the cathedral in Ecuador’s capital.



In the high-altitude mountain city of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, beautiful faces of indigenous people, waving multicolored, checkered Wiphala banners, greeted the pontiff.

The Holy Father’s theme of inclusion was colorfully demonstrated at every turn: embracing ethnic diversity as well as social outcasts.

Quecha and Aymara women, with bowler hats perched on their heads, were waving rosaries among the the indigenous people welcoming Pope Francis across Bolivia. More than 60% of the country’s population belongs to indigenous groups, including President Evo Morales.

At a maximum-security prison, the Pope sat on an outdoor stage, listening to prisoners give testimonies, while two young children played on the platform.

One of the girls ran over to him and put her head in his lap — a gesture of trust and love repeated by children throughout the week.

At the last Mass of his visit, in Asunción, Paraguay, Francis summarized that a Christian is someone who welcomes others: “welcoming those who do not think as we do, who do not have faith or who have lost it; welcoming the persecuted, the unemployed; welcoming the different cultures, of which our earth is so richly blessed; welcoming sinners.”


No to Disposable Culture

Pope Francis traveled in an old white Peugeot in Paraguay — the same car used by St. John Paul II 27 years ago when he visited the country.

A theme that played out across the breadth of the week was rejecting a consumer culture that too easily tosses away objects and people.

The Holy Father advised believers to avoid a materialistic mentality, “in which everything has a price; everything can be bought; everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are ‘unproductive,’ unsuitable or unworthy, since clearly those people don’t ‘add up.’”

Refrains from the Pope’s recently released encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home) occurred in every country. Environmental preservation is particularly meaningful in Ecuador and Bolivia, which are part of the Amazon River Basin. Ecuador includes the Galapagos Islands, with their distinct array of flora and fauna.

An edible altar in Asunción, composed of 200,000 coconuts, 32,000 ears of corn and thousands of squash gourds, pumpkins and seeds proved the creativity of believers responding to the idea of recycling as well as respect for Mother Earth, as people in the Andes do.

Artist Koki Ruiz, who spearheaded the project, is a well-known traditional oil painter who has moved into work on community projects around religious feasts, which engage hundreds of people in memorable gestures of communal piety.

Not just a decorative design, the fruit-and-vegetable mosaic was eminently Catholic: St. Francis and St. Ignatius of Loyola were prominently outlined on either side of the altar. The team of people who created it included prayer intentions, written on the vegetation, which will be disassembled and used for animal feed and other purposes.


Risk Management

A few seconds of near disaster reminded viewers what a miracle it is that such a packed trip, involving millions of people, was so flawlessly executed.

As Pope Francis entered a pavilion in Bolivia to give a major address to the second meeting of popular movements, someone grabbed his white cape-like fanon and inadvertently yanked him.

A few days later, as his car left Bañado Norte, a riverside shantytown in Paraguay, a young man jumped out from the crowd, hurling himself at the car like a human torpedo.

Both times, security was fast to protect the Pope, but they were cautionary moments.

A few odd occasions saw Catholic dignity clash with other symbolic structures, such as when Pope Francis vested for Mass in a Burger King or when leftist President Morales presented him with a Soviet-style hammer-and-sickle crucifix. Later, Francis said he was not offended because he interpreted it as an artistic expression.


A Visionary Like St. John Paul II?

Beneath the color and memorable moments, the exquisite music and universal liturgy, there was a conviction in Pope Francis’ messages reminiscent of St. John Paul II — which pose an interesting challenge for the Catholic Church in the United States.

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the Pope offered a cri de coeur in an address to the second World Meeting of Popular Movements. (Its first meeting was held at the Vatican last October, so the Holy See has had a strong hand in fostering this movement.) Pope Francis described the moral obligation to seek “land, lodging and labor” for the poor — and set out a scathing rebuke of socioeconomic systems prioritizing individualism and capital.

The Holy Father explained, “It would be superficial to think that division and hatred only concern struggles between countries or groups in society. In reality, they are a manifestation of that widespread individualism which divides us and sets us against one another, that legacy of sin lurking in the heart of human beings, which causes so much suffering in society and all of creation.”

Individualism has long been considered a hallmark of the United States, and so has free-market capitalism.

But Pope Francis warned, “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another, and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

These scathing indictments don’t seem to leave a lot of room for nuance. What was clear in South America is that Pope Francis has a well-developed program, and he was elected pope with that program in his pocket: the 2007 Aparecida document of the Latin-American bishops’ conference, affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, who himself attended the conference that produced it.

In fact, based on accounts of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s talk to the conclave before it voted in 2013, he was elected as a result of his presentation of this missionary Church of discipleship, well described in the Aparecida text, which requires the faithful to leave Church structures and familiar patterns to engage with the peripheries — especially with the world’s brokenness.

It’s a striking contrast with an image of the Church that grew under Pope Emeritus Benedict’s pontificate: the Church as smaller, more pure, akin to the early Christians in forming a sanctified minority in a hostile culture.

St. John Paul II also began his pontificate as a visionary with a program. He saw a world in which communism was no more. Everything leading up to Karol Wojtyla’s accession to the Seat of St. Peter prepared him to implement that vision, which called for a new, more explicitly political role for the Holy Father, even as the new world order opened new fields for evangelism.  

What’s different is that St. John Paul II’s vision was in sync with an American perspective, so the Holy See and the U.S. government were able to collaborate effectively.

Pope Francis’ vision can be seen as largely at odds with characteristics of the United States — as a capitalist and military powerhouse with global reach, an engine of consumerism and individualism.  

The Pope is concerned about the growth of inequality, which can be seen in the United States as well as in many developing economies.

Pope Francis’ preoccupation with poverty — and systems that keep people poor — was much on display.

In his centerpiece speech to the popular movements, Pope Francis lauded those who work with the underclass as “social poets” and quoted St. Basil the Great, who called money “the dung of the devil.”

Two things are especially worth noting. First, Pope Francis’ criticism of profit and capitalism flow from a longer history of Catholic thought, as his reference to St. Basil is designed to underscore. Second, his criticism extends to North American-style capitalism, not just more oligarchic patterns in Central and South America.

The idea that economics should serve people’s needs, not just profit motives, is a long-standing Catholic principle.

Catholic social thought enshrines concepts such as solidarity, a community working together for the common good, modifying economic arrangements to facilitate that group effort, and subsidiarity, which prioritizes the smallest, local decision-making body that can solve a problem over big answers that don’t acknowledge individual preferences.

The Church criticizes both capitalism and socialism for allowing government control to displace individual and local decision-making.

While communism was a world threat for most of the 20th century, it wasn’t common for the Catholic Church to vocally confront capitalism, because such confrontation could be interpreted as benefiting the atheistic powers allied with the Soviet Union.


Challenges for the U.S.

Pope Francis is reclaiming the Church’s tradition of speaking truth to power when he challenges the worship of money — money-making as an end in itself.

He’ll do the same while in the United States.

In fact, on the flight back to Italy from Paraguay, he assured reporters that he would directly take on issues facing the middle class, which he hasn’t addressed.

“It’s an error of mine not to think about this,” Pope Francis told a reporter who asked him why he does not talk more about “working, taxpaying” people.

The Pope added, “I heard that there were some criticisms [on economic positions] from the United States. I haven’t had time to study this well, but every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must follow.”



Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.