ASUNCION, Paraguay – Pope Francis reinforced his place as spokesman for the world’s disenfranchised Sunday by visiting a flood-prone slum to encourage its landless and insisting the Catholic Church be a place of welcome for all – sick and sinners especially.
Francis ended his South American pilgrimage with a huge Mass and words of hope and faith for young and old. But the political, anti-capitalist message he left behind may have a more lasting punch.
On the final day before flying off to Rome, Francis sought to offer a message of hope to the residents of the Banado Norte shantytown and to an estimated 1 million people gathered for his farewell Mass on the same swampy field where St. John Paul II proclaimed Paraguay’s first saint nearly 30 years ago.
“How much pain can be soothed, how much despair can be allayed in a place where we feel at home!” Francis said.
Then he outlined his vision of the church: “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.”
The stage for the Mass was a remarkable sight: A huge triptych with the pope’s Jesuit insignia over the central altar, flanked by images of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, on one side and the founder of his Jesuit religious order, St. Ignatius Loyola, on the other. The entire structure was a mosaic, an ode to the role Jesuit missionaries had in Paraguay, made out of 40,000 ears of corn, 200,000 coconuts, 1,000 squash gourds and many, many dried beans.
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