On July 5 Pope Francis embarks on his ninth voyage outside of Italy. It will also be the second time since his election that he sets foot on on South American soil. This visit will take him to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, and have him delicately side step home country. The visit and each of his stops along the way reflect his concern for those on the social, economic and geographical peripheries. His stops along the way will also highlight the rich Catholic history in these countries and once again show the world how the World of God took root in Latin American soil among the lowliest.
Native Marian Patronesses
In Ecuador and Paraguay, the pope will visit the national shrine dedicated to the Marian patroness of those two countries: Ecuador’s El Quinche sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of El Quinche, and Paraguay shrine to Our Lady of Caacupé. Both Madonnas started out as patronesses of the local native tribes who were considered the lowest of the low in society at the time.
In Ecuador in 1594, Our Lady of El Quinche was given to local natives after the people who originally commissioned the statue of Our Lady failed to pay the artist for his work. The artist, Don Diego Robles, traded the figure to natives in exchange for a special type of wood he wanted to work with. She quickly became the protectress of the Andean natives. Yet she was not officially crowned until 1943. Her feast day is celebrated November 21.
In Paraguay the Holy Father will visit the shrine of Our Lady of Caacupe. Devotion to Our Lady of the Miracles, as she is known, goes back to the 16th century. A Guarani man who had become Christian was hiding from members of the Mbayes tribe. They were fiercely anti-Christian and vowed to kill any and all natives who converted to Christianity. The Guarani man hid in a tree and prayed to Our Lady for protection. The Mbayes walked by his hiding spot without realizing he was there. When he was certain they were gone, he took wood from the tree and carved a figure of Our Lady. In 1603, a flood devastated the Pirayu Valley. When the waters receded, the marian statue resurfaced. The shrine was obviously expanded over time, but to this day Paraguayans walk from their villages to her shrine to venerate her and thank her for favours received.
To highlight even further the important role of Latin America’s native populations in the Church, all of the papal Masses will include either readings or prayers in Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani.
Although the pope will not visit a marian shrine in Bolivia, he will stop at another significant site. When he makes his way from La Paz to the airport in El Alto, the motorcade will stop at the place where his confrere Fr. Luis Espinal, SJ, was killed. The Spanish-born Jesuit had degrees in Theology and Philosophy, as well as audiovisual Journalism and had been producing a weekly television program on Spanish state television called “Urgent Questions.” When he used one episode of the program to look at the realities of life in a poor area of Barcelona, the program was abruptly pulled from the schedule. Just as he was grappling with questions of what to do if he could not speak freely in Franco’s Spain, the bishop of La Paz, Bolivia offered him a position teaching at the Catholic University of La Paz. Espinal accepted and moved to Bolivia in 1968. He taught and worked for local radio station. He also founded a magazine and the Assembly for Human Rights.
Espinal’s journalism was focused on drawing attention to the conditions facing Bolivian peasants: poverty despite the presence of an abundance of natural resources, low wages for those who laboured to extract those natural resources, rural populations without access to basic services, poor health care and short life expectancy…the list went on. His books focused on the need for people of faith to pay attention to the poorest in society, and his activism was aimed at gaining greater respect for the human rights of all Bolivians from the government. In 1977 he took part in a 19 day hunger strike alongside Bolivian miners and their families. The strike led to the creation of a formal opposition to the government. That, in turn, led to the resignation of then-president Hugo Banzer. At the same time, the hunger strike gained Fr. Espinal enemies. On March 21, 1980 Fr. Espinal was kidnapped by paramilitary forces. His badly beaten body was found the following day by members of his community.
Today, Fr. Espinal is regarded as a national hero who used his journalism and film studies to help build up Bolivia. The reality, however, is that still one out of four Bolivians live on less than two dollars a day according to the World Bank. Fr. Espinal’s work was vital but still incomplete.
The Poor and Oppressed
Also in Bolivia, Pope Francis will take part in an international gathering for Popular Movements. The first such gathering was held at the Vatican in October 2014. The meeting, being held in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is similarly sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, though the movements taking part are not religious movements. Delegates are members of unions, assemblies, community organizations, and social justice groups. The “cartoneros” – the men who collect cardboard and other recyclables off the street – that Pope Francis ministered to as Archbishop of Buenos Aires are among the groups represented at this meeting.
During his one hour visit to this meeting Pope Francis, along with Bolivian President Evo Morales, will take part in what is billed as a “dialogue” about the need for changes in society so that everyone can have access to the basics of life, and what the popular movements can and should be doing to bring about those changes.
As the meeting includes groups that are not Catholic, this stop is yet another instance of Pope Francis showing the world that some things are so urgent we must join forces across religious lines.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
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