Francis burnishes credentials as unique pope touring impoverished nations in South America

On his weeklong swing through South America, Pope Francis burnished his credentials as a new kind of pontiff, issuing a searing apology to indigenous people for church crimes more than a half millennium old and even making a pit stop at a Burger King to change clothes and freshen up before celebrating Mass.

The first Latin American pope picked three of the region's poorest countries — Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay — and used his speeches and homilies to hammer home themes that have become pillars of his papacy: respect for the poor and for the planet, and an impassioned call to turn away from what he sees as a cruel capitalist system that pillages the world's resources and heaps riches on the few.

They are messages Francis has been honing since becoming pope two years ago, but brought to life in vivid detail whether at Bolivia's notorious Palmasola prison, the mud-drenched Banado Norte slum in Paraguay or even a gathering of business leaders in Ecuador.

"We now know there is one Pope Francis, who says the same things whether he is in Italy, Asia or Latin America," said Massimo Faggioli, a Rome-based Vatican historian. "In Latin America, he was preaching to the choir, so the big challenge will now be to talk to and convince those who feel comfortable with the status quo."

Francis will get that chance in September, when he is scheduled to visit the U.S. capital right after a three-day stop in communist-run Cuba — two Cold War enemies whose recent rapprochement the pope played a personal role in.

The eight-day tour in South America was Francis' first to the Spanish-speaking part of his home continent since he became pope. He went to Portuguese-speaking Brazil soon after his election.

The highlight of this trip was undoubtedly in Bolivia, South America's poorest and most indigenous country, where Francis apologized for crimes committed by the church against indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest, going much further than any pope before him.

"I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God," he told a group of indigenous groups while combative President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, looked on.

Morales said Francis' push to create a world where nobody is excluded makes him a fellow socialist. That idea was quickly batted down by theologians, and the pope himself seemed taken aback when Morales presented him with a gift of a crucifix shaped like a hammer and sickle, a symbol of communism.

An impromptu change of clothes in a Burger King bathroom provided a light moment amid a week of weighty issues. But it also showed how Francis is one of the most unusual pontiffs to lead the world's largest Christian denomination.

With hundreds of thousands of Catholic faithful waiting in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis needed a place to don his vestments for Mass at the Christ the Redeemer square. So he popped into the fast food joint, then minutes later emerged to rail against consumerism during his homily.

In each country on his trek, Francis spent time in marginalized neighborhoods, bringing a global spotlight to the crushing poverty that he says is too often ignored. He blamed capitalism, which he said is obsessed with the logic of profits to the exclusion of the needs of people and protection of the environment.

"This system cannot stand, it can't be endured by the peasants, it can't be endured by the workers, it can't be endured by communities, it can't be endured by the people nor can it be endured by the land," he said in a speech to the World Gathering of Popular Movements in Bolivia.

Juan Maria Carron, a Paraguayan sociology professor and church expert, said Francis is creating new expectations for how future pontiffs should act. "This pope is so different because he goes to the poor and really visits them."

Francis gave blessings and sometimes even bear hugs to the poor and sick throughout the trip. It was more than just spiritual fulfillment for many of the millions who came out to see him.

"The pope loves the poor and I am very poor," said Santa Cristina Rodriguez, a 67-year-old Paraguayan who attended a Mass that Francis celebrated in Caacupe, the country's most important pilgrimage site.

Rodriguez, who has only three remaining teeth, said she has struggled to find work, so she recycles plastic and rummages through garbage cans to make ends meet. "Paraguayans are hard-working, but there are no jobs," she said. "Francis is bringing the country the blessings that it really needs."

All week, Francis showed his considerable political and people skills with crowd-pleasing statements that almost always came with an underlying message directed at the powerful.

In Ecuador, one of the world's most species-diverse nations, Francis told business leaders and indigenous groups that the Earth's natural resources are for everyone and must not be exploited by the wealthy few. The comments were clearly pointed at the OPEC country's dependence on oil extraction.

Using similarly blunt language in Paraguay, where graft is rampant, Francis called on political leaders to curb corruption — as President Horacio Cartes looked on.

As the fast-paced trip wrapped up, the 78-year-old pontiff looked tired and increasingly his comments were off the cuff. In some of those unscripted moments, he combined his critique of capitalism with unusually sharp words for the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide. The message was clear: Even the flock doesn't get a pass.

While visiting the fetid Banado Norte slum in Paraguay hours before flying back to Rome, Francis said true Catholics don't just go to church or pray. Instead, he said, they must improve the lives of people in places like Banado Norte, where thousands live in shacks without running water or electricity.

If not, Francis said, "Your faith is weak, or it's sick or it's dead."


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