Vatican City — Job creation, respect for the environment and the second chances God grants to every sinner were recurring themes as Pope Francis visited the southern Italian region of Molise on Saturday.
"We cannot resign ourselves to losing a whole generation of young people who don't have the strong dignity of work," Pope Francis said during a meeting with the region's young people in the town of Castelpetroso. "Work gives dignity."
"A generation without work is a future defeat for the country and for humanity," the pope told the young people gathered under the hot sun outside the town's Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows.
The Italian national statistics bureau reported in early June that the Molise region's unemployment rate was 16.4 percent, which is worse than the national average. The situation is particularly bad for job seekers between the ages of 15 and 24, a full 50 percent of whom cannot find jobs.
Visiting three towns in Molise in just under 11 hours, Pope Francis began the day meeting with workers, business leaders and local politicians at the regional university in Campobasso.
"Not having work does not just mean not having what one needs to live," the pope said. People can survive on charity and assistance, but "the problem is not being able to bring bread to the table and this takes away one's dignity."
Pope Francis called for a serious effort by national and local politicians, business leaders and workers to come up with some kind of "labor pact" that would create jobs.
Gabriele Maglieri, a 28-year-old who is a farmer, like his father and grandfather before him, told the pope about the importance of family farms in producing traditional Italian wines, olive oil, salami and cheese while protecting the soil, water resources and biodiversity.
In response, the pope said, "to stay and work the land is not to be stuck. It is to be in dialogue -- a fruitful, creative dialogue with the land, making it flower."
The pope said he "fully shares what was said about the importance of safeguarding the earth so that it bears fruit without being exploited. This is one of the greatest challenges of our age: to convert to a form of development that respects creation."
Setting aside his prepared text, as he did repeatedly throughout the day, Pope Francis told the 600 people gathered in the university lecture hall, "In the Americas, and in my own country as well, so many forests are mowed down completely. It becomes land that no one can cultivate; it cannot give life.
"This is our sin: to exploit the earth and not let it tell us what it can give if we care for it," the pope said.
During his afternoon visit to a prison in Isernia, Pope Francis told inmates: "We all make mistakes in life. And we all must ask forgiveness and make a journey of rehabilitation so we don't make them again."
"Some people do this in their own homes and in their own professions. Others, like you, do this in a prison," the pope said. "But all of us, all of us -- anyone who says they do not need to go through a process of rehabilitation is a liar."
Whether trying to be a better person at home or in prison, he said, "the important thing is not to stand still. We all know that when water is still it stagnates."
The pope told the prisoners that he continues to make a phone call every two weeks to young prisoners jailed in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"I'll tell you a secret. When I meet one of you who is in prison, who is walking this path of rehabilitation but is jailed, I sincerely ask myself, 'Why him and not me?' That's what I think. It's a mystery."
Everyone, he said, "must walk, taking a step forward every day with the help of the Lord."
Moving forward also was on the pope's mind earlier in the day when he met an estimated 20,000 young people in Castelpetroso.
The challenge, he said, "is not to wander, but to set out" with a clear goal in mind, looking for values and ideals "that enlighten your minds and warm your hearts, not just for the morning or a brief section of the road, but forever."
Modern society's "culture of the provisional" tries to convince young people that no vocation, no relationship and no passion will last, he said, but deep down people yearn to construct their lives on "the rock of love and responsibility rather than on the sands of shifting emotions."
"The human heart aspires to great things, important values, deep friendships and bonds that are strengthened, not broken, by trial," he said. "The human being aspires to love and be loved."
Pope Francis told young people they could look to their "big brother," Jesus, for help and guidance in discerning their vocations and finding the path that will lead to happiness in serving God and others.
At Mass in Campobasso, the pope said that Christians are called to serve God through prayer, proclaiming the Gospel and charity.
"The witness of charity is the high road of evangelization," he said.
During his homily, the pope renewed his appeal to politicians, business leaders and investors to work together to create jobs.
"It is necessary to put the dignity of the human person at the center of every plan and every action. Other interests, even legitimate ones, are secondary," he said.