Francis laments 'cancer' of worker exploitation in Italian immigrant town

FLORENCE, Italy — Pope Francis has again strikingly criticized aspects of the market capitalist system, telling crowds in a visit to an Italian town that communities must fight against the "cancers" of corruption and exploitation of workers.

At the beginning of a daylong visit Tuesday to the cities of Prato and Florence -- about 15 miles apart, and both about 200 miles north of Rome -- the pontiff lamented labor conditions that caused a December 2013 factory fire in the first city to kill seven Chinese immigrant workers.

Calling for "suitable work" for all people, Francis said that accident was "a tragedy of exploitation and of inhumane conditions of life" for the laborers.

"This is not suitable work!" the pope exhorted, speaking to crowds in the public square outside Prato's Catholic cathedral.

"The life of every community demands that you fight until the end of the cancer of corruption, the cancer of human and working exploitation and the venom of illegality," he said. "Among ourselves and together with others, do not tire ever of the fight for truth and justice!"

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Francis was speaking Tuesday in an off-the-cuff moment during his remarks that focused on the fire, which occurred at a Teresa Moda factory in the town. The fire exit at the factory was reported at the time to have been blocked by flammable fabric, causing the deaths.

Prato is an industrial center in Italy's central Tuscany region and is estimated to have some 40,000 Chinese immigrants among its population of about 180,000, which is one of the highest concentrations of Chinese persons in Europe. As the pope spoke Monday, people in the square were waving Chinese flags as well as banners written in Chinese.

Francis continued his visit Tuesday by heading to Florence to address a decennial meeting of the Italian Catholic church, where he forcefully told some 2,200 bishops and laypeople gathered for the event that our times require a deeply merciful Catholicism that is unafraid of change.

At a crowded Mass later Tuesday afternoon at Florence's athletic stadium, the pontiff spoke of the need of the church to be aware of the reality people face in today's world. Francis focused his homily on a question Jesus asks in Matthew's Gospel: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

"It is a question that shows how much the heart and the gaze of Jesus is open to all," said the pope. "Jesus is interested in what the people think not to please them but to able to communicate with them. Without knowing what they think, the disciple is isolated and begins to judge the people according to his own thoughts and his own convictions."

"Maintaining a healthy contact with reality, with what people live, with their tears and their joys, is the only way to be able to help them, form them, and communicate to them," he said.

"It is the only way to speak to the hearts of people, touching their daily experience," said Francis. "It is the only way of opening their heart to listen to God."

"Jesus' disciples must never forget from where they were chosen -- from among the people -- and must never fall into the temptation to have distant attitudes, as if what the people think and live doesn't involve them or is not important for them," the pontiff continued.

"The church, like Jesus, lives in the midst of the people and for the people," said the pope. "For this the church, in all its history, has always brought forward the same question: Who is Jesus for the men and women of today?"

Francis' events in both Prato and Florence Tuesday were highly anticipated and attended by people across Tuscany. Some in Prato's square had slept outside overnight to have a chance to see the pontiff. The stadium in Florence appeared completely full.

To the people in Prato, the pope also said the church is called "to get close to the men and women of our times."

"Going forth, certainly, means to risk but there is not faith without risk," said Francis. "A faith that thinks of itself and remains closed in its home is not faithful to the invitation of the Lord, who calls his own to take the initiative and get themselves involved, without fear."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]


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