The visit of Pope Francis to Brazil, site of World Youth Day 2013, puts in sharp focus the debilitating poverty, which social scientists maintain is caused by the ruling class appropriating for themselves resources that properly belong to the people.
The observation applies to the Philippines as well, as it does to the rest of the developing world.
Pope Francis arrived in Brazil on Monday, his first visit outside of Rome since his investiture. He was welcomed by President Dilma Rousseff herself and by 1.5 million Catholics, from Brazil and neighboring countries, including Argentina, the Pontiff’s birthplace.
There were also delegations from all over the world, especially from countries whose populations are predominantly Catholic, like the Philippines.
In his homily delivered on Thursday at Copacobana Beach, Pope Francis called on the world’s youth to help change the world, which he said is impoverished by the excesses of global capitalism. He added, in so many words, government officials are more concerned about amassing wealth for themselves rather than serving their poor countrymen, who are desperately in need of assistance.
The Philippines is part of that suffering world, although the cause of its misfortune is homegrown. It is more local rather than global, more feudal rather than capitalistic.
Remembering 1995 WYD in Manila
In 1995, from January 10 to 15, the World Youth Day was held in the Philippines. An estimated five million Filipino faithful flocked to Rizal Park to listen to and applaud Pope John Paul II as he delivered his address.
The affair was the largest gathering ever of Catholics in history. It would be difficult to match it.
A Pole, John Paul II railed against the enslavement of people. He saw the violence committed by the Communist Party in Eastern Europe. It was thus understandable that he would employ the great moral force of his office and his personality to bring down totalitarianism that had kept that part of the world in thrall.
John Paul II railed against materialism. He did so in his first visit to the United States where his most important speech warned against the evils of unbridled capitalism, which he described as unchristian and as harmful to human beings—their dignity and proper development—as communism and collectivist isms.
It was early during the papacy of John Paul II that Roman Catholic catechism and apostolic constitutions made clear what Vatican II referred as the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.”
Among his statements showing his concern for the poor is the one in his Lenten message of 1998: “The Church continually combats all forms of poverty, because as Mother she is concerned that each and every person be able to live fully in dignity as a child of God…. I exhort every Christian, in this Lenten season, to evidence his personal conversion through a concrete sign of love toward those in need, recognizing in this person the face of Christ and repeating, as if almost face to face: ‘I was poor, I was marginalized … and you welcomed me.’”
One of retired Pope Benedict’s first encyclicals called on the need for Catholics to take the commandment to help the poor to heart. He admitted that he had merely based his messages on John Paul II’s unfinished writings on the subject.
More aggressive on the subject of poverty
The present Holy Father is speaking out more aggressively on the subject of poverty and its causes.
To demonstrate his concern for the poor, Pope Francis spent time in one of Brazil’s notorious favelas (slum communities), where Brazil’s poorest of the poor live in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers and other symbols of wealth.
A reporter noted that the Pope assured residents of Varginha favela, which is described as the city’s most dangerous slums, that he loved them and that his thoughts and prayers were always with them. Pope Francis told the poor there that they are an integral part of society, and that a country cannot call itself successful if it leaves the poor to fend for themselves.
Apart from castigating the rich, Pope Francis is sending out a message to the Catholic Church, which is increasingly seen as elitist, a Church of the middle-class and of the rich, not of the poor for whom it was established by Jesus Christ more than two thousand years ago.
No wonder the poor in Latin America are drawn to evangelicals, who promise prosperity in this life as well as salvation and eternal bliss in heaven. .
“The visit [of the Pope]“is an amazing opportunity to connect with the Catholic masses and that is an urgent task Catholic leaders face in Latin America,” said history professor Julia Young of the Catholic University of America.
The admonition to corrupt government officials, rendered in eight different languages, must have struck a responsive chord among the Brazilian young people, who recently staged simultaneous and spontaneous protests all over the country against the depredations caused by greedy businessmen and corrupt officials.
“How many divisions has the Pope?” Joseph Stalin sarcastically asked when somebody warned him he was alienating the Catholic Church by turning all of Eastern Europe into one huge concentration camp.
That was in May 1935. A little more than half a century later, in December 1991, John Paul II, without firing a single shot sent Stalin’s empire crumbling to the ground.
Pope Francis is similarly at war but against a different foe. Like Eastern Europe, Latin America is in the throes of intense suffering, not from enslavement by Communism but from exploitation by unbridled capitalism.
The Argentine Pope has a difficult task of persuading the rich and powerful to reform the existing economic order and to give the poor human dignity by not taking away their just share of the world’s resources.