Pray for the Pope’s Continent
Often I feel that the Western world struggles to understand Pope Francis. Perhaps this is because the Western Church does not understand the Latin American context in which he worked as a priest and archbishop.
This is where we’re fortunate in South Africa. Pope Francis speaks our language. He preaches mercy for the poor, the disenfranchised, and those shunned by society.
This month as we journey in prayer towards the 100th anniversary of the message of Fatima, let us unite our prayers with Pope Francis for the people of his beloved continent.
South America is a place of great beauty, rich cultural traditions and a deep Catholic faith. But it is also a place of great disparity between rich and poor where many of its people are denied basic human rights.
Most South American countries are democracies that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, following decades of military dictatorships.
Conditions in places like Argentina, Brazil and Chile are much better today than they were under military rule, but many governments lack the political will to resolve the most pressing problems of the poor and often use force to crack down on calls for greater equality.
In March, over two million people in Chile took to the streets to demand the scrapping of the country’s pension system which they say benefits the rich, while the majority of low-level earners find themselves retiring on less than the minimum wage. In response to these concerns, the government sent riot police to halt the demonstrators.
We also witnessed similar protests in Brazil during the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Protesters hoped that international visibility to their demands would place greater pressure on the government to create better living conditions. Instead, spectators were banned from stadiums for wearing T-shirts bearing protest slogans and at the time of the Olympics, peaceful protests were banned altogether.
Many Latin American governments have also failed their indigenous people. Countries like Bolivia have laws to grant access to land rights to indigenous populations who were dispossessed of their land by centuries of colonial rule, agricultural expansion and military dictatorships. In many of these countries these laws exist only in law books.
The Situation in South America
As large multinationals discover the untapped mineral wealth in many Latin American countries, there is a conflict of interest between the restitution of land to indigenous populations and access to these mineral deposits.
Amnesty International recorded 75 “targeted killings” of human rights defenders in Colombia and 47 activists were killed in Brazil after calling for mineral rights to indigenous communities. In Colombia, the government has further declared that there will be no land rights for indigenous populations in areas of “strategic interest”.
The Venezuelan economy has worsened following the decline in the oil price and decades of mismanagement. As a result the country is suffering from extreme food shortages. In March, the government called on the UN to step in to provide medicines to the country’s hospitals. According to the BBC, Venezuelan hospitals have only 5% of the medicines they need to provide basic medical support to the population.
If the political and social problems throughout Latin America weren’t enough, natural disasters have displaced thousands of people and put even more pressure on struggling economies.
A decade-long drought in Chile coupled with suspected arson destroyed 1500 homes and ravaged 580000 hectares of land at the start of this year.
Floods in Peru have wiped out entire suburbs on the outskirts of the capital Lima. The flooding has also clogged up the city’s fresh water treatment centres, making drinking water hard to come by.
Throughout the country the flooding has already displaced 650000 people. Roads and other infrastructure have been damaged and 145000 properties have been destroyed, according to Reuters.
There is so much we can pray for, but mostly we pray that the governments of Latin America, and other parts of the world, can see their poorest citizens not as a burden on state resources but rather as individuals with dignity, and provide them with basic access to goods and services that will enable them to become meaningful participants of society.
We pray with Pope Francis, from his beautiful prayer from Laudato Si’:
“All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.
“Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognise that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.”