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Pope Francis thrills South America



Following Pope Francis’s tour of South America, the BIF Bulletin provides a special edition on the significance of his visit to Bolivia. Clare Dixon contributes additional analysis of the Pope’s recent encyclical, which calls for urgent action to protect our planet.
Over a week in July 2015, Pope Francis visited three South American countries, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. Some of his hardest hitting messages were delivered in Bolivia, where he stayed for barely 44 hours, visiting El Alto, La Paz and Santa Cruz. The visit has been of great importance locally and possibly on the world’s stage too. With simplicity and a direct approach, Francis managed to get over a series of significant messages.
Who is Francis and why these countries?
Francis (Jorge María Bergoglio), born in Buenos Aires, and provincial head of the Jesuits by his mid 30s, became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and was already considered for election to the pope’s office when Benedict XVI was chosen on John Paul II’s death.
His election to the post – the first Latin American to be chosen, and the first Jesuit – appears to have been in part the search for someone different, someone not part of the euro-centric church which has been so much called into question over recent years. Francis comes from a newer church, one built by the European church, but left to develop in far-flung areas, characterized by deep social injustice. For him, siding with the poor and oppressed is not really an issue. A bit over two years into the job, Pope Francis has come out clearly against consumer society and the (capitalist) system, with his Encyclical Laudato Si’ aimed at defending the environment for future generations (see below).
Rather than being a liberation theologian, Francis is first and foremost a pastor. He is not so much a theologian as his two predecessors; rather he is above all a ‘doer’, who takes the side of the oppressed and the poor, who lives simply in solidarity with them, yet seeks to change policy in favour of greater justice for all.
According to the Pope’s communications official, the visit to these three countries was precisely because they are peripheral in Latin America. The visit comes almost immediately after the publication of the Encyclical, and was his first opportunity to explain it to a wider audience. A further reason was the importance of indigenous populations in these three countries and the relationship they have with Mother Earth. Both Bolivia and Ecuador are carrying out programmes of social reform.  There are many coincidences between the discourse of the Pope and that of President Evo Morales, particularly their rejection of the current economic system and consumer society, their stance taken on climate change and defence of the environment, and their emphasis on attending to the immediate needs of the poor.
Before the visit, Jesuit priest and anthropologist Xavier Albó saw the message being for the Bolivian clergy to adopt the ‘smell of sheep’ and not behave like peacocks.  Edmundo Abastoflor, Archbishop of La Paz, felt the church had to reach out to people, since the numbers of faithful were down because of the strong push from the evangelical churches. Certainly, there were some strong messages built in, such as the visit to the Palmasola jail in Santa Cruz which drew attention to the parlous state of the judicial system in Bolivia.
The state of the Catholic Church in Bolivia
The shake-up that Francis is bringing about catches the Bolivian church at a moment when it is in need of renewal. A generation of priests and nuns inspired by liberation theology of the 1970s and who sided with the poor (many of them foreigners, such as Luis Espinal, the Jesuit who was killed by paramilitary soldiers in the period leading up to the 1980 coup) has largely disappeared, having been neutralised by the last two Popes. Since 1978 when John Paul II took over office, those appointed bishops have been mainly conservatives. The option for the poor is no longer apparent. Leadership has been lacking, with the Cardinal (Julio Terrazas) retiring and no one yet coming forward to provide leadership.
Among those who stand out for the positions they adopt are the Bishop of Pando, Eugenio Coter (Italian), who talks of the problems of the Amazon and the environment; Bishop Eugenio Scarpellini (Italian) in El Alto, who talks of the need for participation and social action; Bishop Ricardo Centellas in Potosí, who works on social issues and mining in particular, and the President of the Bishop’s Conference, Oscar Aparicio, who is Archbishop of Cochabamba. The Archbishop of Santa Cruz, Sergio Gualberti (Italian), has involved himself in issues such as the prison system.
It remains to be seen whether the Pope’s message will bring about change within the clergy, or the extent to which this will depend on renewal of several of the bishops now in place.
About 78% of the Bolivian population declare that they belong to the Catholic Church. However, with many people often professing indigenous beliefs as well, the Church has accepted a fusion of beliefs, taking a syncretic approach.
Church-state relations
The new constitution approved in January 2009 brought about important changes regarding the official status of the Catholic Church. Article 4 recognizes freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs according to different cosmovisions.  The state is now officially independent from religion. This means that all religions and cosmovisions have equal weight in terms of privileges, and this has undercut the standing and influence of the Catholic Church. The Church is widely viewed as being one of the key institutions involved in the conquest of the Americas. As recently as 2008, the church in Santa Cruz was seen as aligning itself with separatist conservative positions seeking autonomy, rather than siding with the indigenous-led national government in La Paz.
Relations between church and state are governed by official agreements, in the case of the Catholic Church with the Vatican. The Catholic Church continues to provide services in the fields of education, healthcare and care for the elderly etc., even though the state has reaffirmed its involvement in some of these areas. Clearly there will be room for debate on how to proceed with formal state-church relations over the years to come within the framework of living well (Vivir Bien). 
Meanwhile, occasionally the Church comes out with statements regarding issues such as religious education, abortion, single sex relationships, drug-trafficking and related violence, and issues of political relevance (such as the proposal to build a road through the TIPNIS natural reserve).
Juan Carlos Núñez of the Fundación Jubileo says that the main issues in play today are different: “today the ships bringing change do not bear the cross, but the telecommunications satellite”. (Hoy las caravelas no están con la cruz, sino con el satélite).
Francis’s main messages
Pope Francis arrived in La Paz from Ecuador late afternoon on 8 July, was met by Evo Morales in the military airport in El Alto, where people had congregated since first light to see and listen to him. He then made his way in his Papa Móvil down the motorway to La Paz, stopping off to bless the people waiting near to where Luis Espinal was killed in 1980. He then made his way to the Archbishop’s offices, before visiting Morales in the Palacio Quemado for an exchange of gifts and then offering a homily in the Cathedral. Afterwards he flew to Santa Cruz to begin the rest of his visit, thus avoiding staying in La Paz overnight given his lung problems. Activities included a vast outdoor mass in the area of the ‘Cristo’, a meeting with the clergy and people from religious orders, and the closure of the Second Meeting of Popular Movements organised by the Vatican and widely attended by some 900 representatives from outside Bolivia and 600 from Bolivian social movements. The following day he visited the jail at Palmasola before leaving for Paraguay.
The main issues that the Pope covered in his different meetings were:
  • The efforts being made by Bolivia to deal with exclusion, particularly of indigenous people; to work together with social movements for greater inclusion; and care for the environment, both the Mother Earth and the people who inhabit these lands, a human ecology, an integral ecology.
  • The need to look after those who are excluded and discarded, the most vulnerable in society. In particular he mentioned young people and older people, but also made a point of visiting prisoners at Palmasola. On a couple of occasions he drew attention to the family as a basic unit that helps to solve the problems of those within it. Women and older people, he suggested, pass on values and knowledge from one generation to the next.
  • The importance of basic values such as not lying, stealing or being lazy, while stressing the need not to become caught up in the spiral of consumption, and to work together for the common good.
  • The importance of dialogue, and here Francis talked of Bolivia’s access to the sea, a key point for his local audience.
  • When speaking to the clergy and people from religious orders, Francis gave clear advice on the importance of a commitment to the poor, siding with them, exercising solidarity with them, and working together with social movements to this end.
  • In closing the meeting with social movements, Francis talked of the way in which the economic system puts profit before all else and the way this threatens the planet and humankind. Consumer society has unleashed a series of problems where the common good is at risk and our common home is under threat. He claimed that the environment is giving off a stench as it is exploited without consideration to sustainability. He suggested the importance of going back to the main issues that the social movements have been discussing: land, housing and jobs. He argued the need to take part locally in ensuring these basic rights, and build up from there to achieve a more global reach. We are sowers of change, he said, sowing so that future generations can live well and with dignity. His recommendations were three: first that the economy should be at the service of the people rather than people being slaves to money and it is more important to take care of our common home than to accumulate more than we need; second, that Bolivians need to come together with other peoples seeking to be authors of their own development,  developing fraternal relations within the region (the ‘patria grande’); and third, the defence of Mother Earth, bringing influence to bear in the multiple meetings that have so far had little effect.
  • Francis asked directly for forgiveness of the Church for the crimes committed against indigenous peoples in the conquest of the Americas. Today – he said – our faith is revolutionary because it questions money and the consumer society, it questions a third world war in instalments, and it questions genocide.
  • Mons. Jesús Juárez, currently Archbishop of Sucre, in his welcome to Francis at the meeting in Palmasola prison, talked of the scandal of the retardation of justice in Bolivia, where 84% of inmates have not been sentenced. We need to have the strength, he said, to take daring decisions affecting the justice system as a whole. Three inmates gave eloquent testimony regarding their personal situations and the conditions they live in, that make them doubt any longer what is right or wrong. Francis talked of the need for forgiveness.  Being in prison is not the same as being excluded (‘Reclusión no es exclusión’); he argued that it is important in jail too for inmates to build up networks of people which, together with the family, can help rebuild the person. 
The Pope has sought to make a clear break with what came before (scandals within the Church) with a straight-forward approach and clear messages; his proposal is political, in a world that rarely listens. He is seeking to take sides with those living in poverty that are most vulnerable. In his visit to Bolivia, he was speaking not only to Bolivians but beyond its frontiers. Among his next steps will be a visit to the US Congress and to the United Nations.
Francis came over simply but with very strong messages, many resonating with the discourse of Evo Morales in the international arena. 
The Church in Bolivia needs to recover from its colonial past and come up with clear plans for its role in the decades to come. It has yet to be seen to what extent the Church and clergy will take on the Pope’s recommendations, and whether they will/can renew the Church’s attitude from within, reaching out to a new generation from a different perspective.
Unfortunately the international press (and some of the local opposition) picked up on minor issues, like the present Evo Morales made to Francis of a copy of a carving made by Luis Espinal, where a cross and a hammer-and-sickle are joined together in one.
Perhaps the main area where little was said relates to women and gender rights.  On several occasions, Francis alluded to the family and the importance of its role as a part of society and women’s role within that. He did not, however, talk about women’s rights as such and their participation in society.
The turnout at different moments of the visit was massive and Francis made a strong impression on those he addressed. His words also had a major impact well beyond the frontiers of Bolivia.
Laudato Si’ – Praised Be:  On the Care for our Common Home (Article by Clare Dixon)
The papal encyclical Laudato Si’, published on 18 June, is probably the most trailed and eagerly awaited pronouncement from the Vatican for decades. For most people, even for many Catholics, the best-known, or perhaps notorious, previous encyclical – or “circular letter” – released by the Vatican was that of Pope Paul VI in 1968. That document, entitled Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), re-emphasised the Church’s teachings against artificial birth control, and set the Catholic Church in the minds of many as an institution primarily concerned about sexual morality with its ban on contraception and its condemnation of sex outside of marriage. This is an image of the Church which still exists up to the present day.
There have been many papal encyclicals, however, which have not concentrated on sexual mores but have commented on key social questions. But these key foundational documents remain virtually unknown among those outside of the Catholic Church, to the extent that Catholic Social Teaching has often been referenced as the Church’s “best kept secret”.
The tradition of Catholic Social Teaching goes back to first social encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (subtitled “On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour”) released by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 at a time of the industrial revolution to highlight the principles required to bring about a just society. This introduced the ‘just wage theory’ protecting the rights of workers and defending freedom of association by the state. Rights of private property were defended but limited.
So, what was going to be different or unusual about this new encyclical? In the week before its publication, the BBC broadcast a programme entitled “Is the Pope a Communist” in the expectation that the Pope’s message “On the care for our common home” would ruffle feathers. In the United States, right-wing, climate-change denying commentators had already rubbished the encyclical – and the Pope too – because of its expected focus on the human contribution to global warming.
Whilst the publicity surrounding the encyclical has indeed concentrated on climate matters, this new encyclical goes much, very much further in its challenge to humankind as a whole to wake up to the state of the planet and the effects of the environment on all forms of life; it constitutes a clarion call to action before it’s too late.
“The earth, our home, is begin­ning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth… The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased vio­lence and a rise in new forms of social aggres­sion, drug trafficking, and loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an im­provement in the quality of life.”
For the first time a papal encyclical has addressed not just the Catholic community but has called on people of all faiths and none, the whole of humanity, as citizens, to heed its message. Never before has an encyclical been aimed deliberately at influencing the wider debates of world governance rather than being just a critique from a perspective of faith.
Laudato Si’  was timed to be an urgent contribution to the current debates in a range of inter-governmental events this year: the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa (July), the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York (September) when Pope Francis will address the United Nations, and finally the UNFCCC CoP 21 Climate Conference in Paris (December).
Repeatedly, Pope Francis insists on the primary focus on the impoverished and excluded, the hallmark of his papacy:
“They are the majority of the planet’s popu­lation, billions of people. These days, their problems are brought up as an after­thought, treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, com­munications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the com­fortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, can lead to a numbing of conscience and at times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a so­cial approach; it must integrate questions of jus­tice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Laudato Si’ is no politely-worded treatise of theological niceties, it is a passionate, erudite, engaging, radical and eminently readable cri de coeur for joint action to turn back the dominant destructive model of development and to preserve the planet for future generations. It denounces the throwaway culture of consumerism, the depredations of rampant capitalism and the exclusion of the poor of the world from the fruits of creation. 
It pulls no punches and spares few from criticism: it covers everything from the poisoning of water supplies by extractive industries, to the loss of bio-diversity, destruction of coral reefs and glacial melt. It denounces the immense gulf of inequality yet rejoices in the splendour of creation in all its diversity, it outlines the human roots of the ecological crisis and calls for an integral ecology based on the common good and intergenerational justice. It sets out guidelines for action at the global policy level as well as in national and local politics, calling for transparency and dialogue in the way decisions are made.
Despite its hard words and plain speaking the encyclical is a document of hope and a signpost towards a better future. If you too hope that “another world is possible”, then read it.
Bolivia Information Forum

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