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With the poor and with the young

Meeting the 30,000 young people who had come from Argentina, an event originally not part of the programme, and with the welcome celebration at Copacabana – extremely warm despite the cold – Pope Francis took them to the heart of the World Youth Day. It had begun in a wet, grey Rio de Janeiro but later the sun came out. A few hours earlier the Pope had met the small community of Varghina in the midst of one of the many favelas of the Brazilian metropolis, a real example of the material and existential peripheries which have been the focus of his care as priest and bishop for decades.

Poor people and young people, therefore, but not isolated as if they were categories to be classified or treated ascetically. On the contrary they must be given consideration and, above all, they must be met in their own social context. The Pope had already explained this, speaking to the journalists on the aircraft bound for Brazil, and he repeated it to the thousands of Argentinians who had crowded into the Cathedral of Rio and filled the square outside it: the risk, for everyone, is exclusion. The world crisis has in fact exposed the intolerable dangers inherent in unemployment which stem from the exacerbated and unbridled search for financial profit that seeks to escape all control, a new and dreadful idol.

This then means the marginalization of entire generations; of the young who also represent the future, but also of the elderly who are likewise marginalized and silenced, even to the point that we are reminded of a kind of hidden  euthanasia, the Bishop of Rome said, speaking extemporaneously to his fellow countrymen and women, but addressing everyone, as always making an extraordinary impact. The Pope asked them to react to this situation in the name of the Gospel, even at the cost of creating a bit of confusion as an expected consequence of the Day in Rio. I hope there will be a mess, were literally his first words, repeating a sacrosanct concept which he has reiterated on several occasions in the past few months. So that the whole Church will go out of herself and give up her increasingly barren self-referential approach in order to put her stakes on action rooted in prayer and contemplation.

Gestures and words had barely been interwoven in the touching visit to Varginha than they evoked memories of Paul VI's visit to the Tondo neighbourhood in the outskirts of Manila, of so many others on John Paul II's journeys, and of the solicitude of Benedict XVI in Brazil itself, as well as during his visit to Benin. In the small district of poor huts, the Pope was moved as he blessed the wooden altar of the parish church and, like a visiting relative, picked up two children to have himself photographed in a minuscule room and then prayed with the Evangelical faithful who devoutly asked him to touch rosary beads  and little bottles of water.

So it was that Pope Francis, Bishop of the Church which has presided in charity over the Catholic communion since ancient times, wanted to show the most authentic face of the Christian faith, the face of mercy, in this long, moving prologue to the Day for the youth of the world whom he welcomed on that damp, cold evening. And he affectionately called to mind his Predecessor, asking them to applaud Benedict XVI:  “at this moment, he is watching us” on television, he said.  And Francis himself began clapping his hands, followed immediately by the million young people present at Copacabana.

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St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 19, 2018

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