SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AP) – Pope Francis denounced the "throwaway" culture of today's society that discards anyone who is unproductive as he celebrated his first public Mass in Bolivia on Thursday, one of the key days of his South American pilgrimage. It will culminate with a summit of farmers, fishermen and indigenous whose causes have long been championed by history's first Latin American pope.
All night and through dawn, Bolivians streamed into the Christ the Redeemer plaza in the center of this southeastern Bolivian city for Francis' Mass, which featured readings and prayers in Guarani and Aimara, two of Bolivia's indigenous languages. The government declared a national holiday so workers and students could attend the ceremony, which also featured an altar carved from wood by artisans of the Chiquitano people, another of the country's 36 indigenous groups.
In a blending of the native and new, the famously unpretentious pope changed into his vestments for the Mass in a nearby Burger King.
Speaking to the crowd in South America's poorest country, Francis decried the prevailing mentality of the world economy where so many people are "discarded" today — the poor, the elderly, those who are unproductive.
"It is a mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable," he said. "This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive."
It's a theme he was expected to expand on later in the day at a summit of "popular movements," a collection of non-governmental organizations representing street sellers, indigenous groups, mining cooperatives and "cartoneros," who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods. His keynote speech was expected to be one of the highlights of the trip, outlining some of his core priorities about a church that cares most for the poor and marginalized.
When Francis headlined the first such summit at the Vatican last October, he issued a remarkable, off-the-cuff monologue on the injustice of unemployment, the scandal of poverty and the obligation to care for the Earth.
"Tierra, Techo, Trabajo," was his mantra then. "Land, Lodging, Labor."
"When I talk about this, some people think the pope is a communist," he told the gathering. "They don't realize that love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel."
The scene in Santa Cruz was festive, with street-sellers hawking digital watches with the pope's face on them and indigenous in feathered headdresses mingling with mestizos, or Bolivians of mixed indigenous-Spanish ancestry. One group of 25 Trinitarios indigenous from Beni, Bolivia tried to perform a traditional dance near the altar and were removed.
Hundreds of faithful came from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia as well, hoping to catch a glimpse of their pope.
"The pope is Argentine and we came to see him, we wanted to make him feel at home," said engineering student Emilio Domesan, who came to Santa Cruz with a group of friends.
Francis arrived in Bolivia from Ecuador on Wednesday, embraced by President Evo Morales on the tarmac of the airport in La Paz where Francis praised Bolivia for taking "important steps" to include the poor and marginalized in the political and economic life of South America's poorest country.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president with a socialist bent, came to power championing Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups and enshrined their rights in the constitution. Under his leadership Bolivia's economy has boomed thanks to high prices for its natural gas and minerals.
But Morales has roiled the local Catholic Church by taking a series of anti-clerical initiatives, including a new constitution that made the overwhelmingly Catholic Bolivia a secular country. As soon as Morales took office in 2006, the Bible and cross were removed from the presidential palace and Andean religious rituals have now replaced Catholic rites at official state ceremonies.
In his speech, Francis noted the Catholic faith took "deep root" in Bolivia centuries ago "and has continued to shed its light upon society, contributing to the development of the nation and shaping its culture."
"The voice of the bishops, which must be prophetic, speaks to society in the name of the church, our mother, from her preferential, evangelical option for the poor," he said.