Francis thunders against abuse of workers, corruption in Naples

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has made what appear to be among his strongest remarks yet against the global economic system, emphatically crying out in this historic but economically depressed city Saturday for those who have been left without the dignity of work.

Speaking in an area of this southern Italian city known for unemployment and crime, Francis spoke particularly on behalf of young people who are unable to find work and are liable then to choose crime or other unethical means of making ends meet.

Citing statistics that some 40 percent of people aged 25 and below in Naples do not have work, the pontiff said: "This is grave."

"What to do, a young person without work?" he asked. "What future do they have? What path of life to choose?"

"This is a responsibility not only of the city, not only of the country, but of the world," the pontiff continued. "Because -- because there is an economic system that throws away people and now touches the young people, namely, without work."

"The problem is not [about] eating," he continued, raising his voice and shaking his hand. "The most grave problem is not to have the possibility to bring bread home, to earn it."

"And when you do not earn bread, you lose dignity," the pope said, his voice nearly shrill. "And this lacking of work robs us of dignity!"

"We must defend our dignity, as citizens, as men, as women, as young people!" he cried out. "This is grave!"

Francis was making his emphatic comments Saturday as part of a visit to the Italian cities of Pompeii and Naples, both about 150 miles south of Rome. He was speaking in Naples just after landing in that city, in a meeting with people in a neighborhood known as Scampia.

The neighborhood, located in the north of Naples, is known for a some 67 percent unemployment rate and high crime from the mafia and drug traffic through the port city.

A historic city that is among the oldest and most visited in Europe, Naples has also been plagued by violence and political influence from the local Camorra mafia. Where Francis spoke is known particularly as a place of violence, where rival gangs fight for control.

"Those who voluntarily take the road of evil rob a piece of hope," Francis told those in the area, speaking with children around his feet.

"They rob it from themselves and from everybody, from society, from so many honest and hard-working people, they rob it from good name of the city and from its economy."

Later in the day at an open-air Mass with thousands of people in one of the city's central squares, Francis poignantly addressed those in in the mob, calling on them to convert their ways.

Speaking softly towards the end of his homily, the pontiff said: "To the criminals and all their accomplices, today, I humbly, like a brother, repeat: Convert to love and to justice! Let yourself be found by God’s mercy. Know that Jesus is looking for you to embrace you, kiss you and love you.”

"The tears of the mothers of Naples, mixed with those of Mary, also ask you for it," said Francis.

Earlier in the day in the Scampia neighborhood, the pontiff was responding in his remarks to three testimonies presented by residents of the area -- one from a homeless Filipina migrant, another from a man who has not been able to find work, and the last from a local magistrate.

Indirectly addressing problems of corruption in Naples, Francis tied such corruption to mistreatment of immigrants and "stealing" of work from young people. He also said that all people have the possibility to be corrupted, through daily choices of life.

But linking the word "corruption" to its roots of an animal that is dead and corrupting, the pontiff exhorted: "Corruption stinks! And the corrupt society stinks!"

"A Christian who lets it enter inside of themselves," the pope started, before finishing: "Corruption is not Christian! Stinks! Understood?"

Speaking also against mistreatment of workers, Francis related how he had met a woman some weeks ago who works 11 hours a day to make around 600 Euros a month, without having any money for pension or healthcare.

"This is called slavery," said the pope. "This is called exploitation! This is not human. This is not Christian."

"We must retake the fight for our dignity," he continued later. "That is the fight for find, to search, to re-find the possibility to bring bread home."

Responding to the immigrant woman, Francis deviated entirely from his prepared text to directly reply to what she had said. The woman, who said she spoke on behalf of many immigrants in the area without homes, said the pope in his work had legitimized that they are also children of God.

"But is it necessary to arrive at this?" Francis asked, referring to her desire to be recognized as a child of God. "Are immigrants humans of second class?" he then continued, as children seated around him said: "No!"

"We have to make it felt to our immigrant brothers and sisters that they are citizens, that they are like us, children of God -- that they are immigrants like us," the pontiff continued. "Because all of us are immigrants."

"All are immigrants," he emphasized. "All are on the path. All. This word is not written in a book ... it is written in our flesh -- our path of life."

"We are all children of God, loved children, wanted," said the pope.

Francis continued by saying that no one on the Earth has a fixed place of living, as all eventually die. "All must go to find God, one first, the other later," said the pontiff.

Besides his morning meeting and the outdoor Mass, Francis is holding four other meetings in Naples Saturday -- with prisoners, with clergy and religious of the city, with sick persons, and with young people.

He will meet with the prisoners during a lunch with about 90 detainees from two local institutions, including 10 from a prison ward for transgender and gay prisoners and those who suffer from AIDS.

The pontiff's visit to Pompeii Saturday morning was very brief, with him spending only a few moments in prayer at a Marian shrine before continuing on to Naples.

Speaking during his homily at the open-air Mass there, Francis said he had come to the city with one mission: "To proclaim together with you: Jesus is the Lord!"

"The word of Christ is powerful," said the pontiff. "It does not have the power of the world but that of God -- that is strong in humility, also, also in weakness."

"Its power is that of love ... a love that knows no confines, a love that makes us love the other before ourselves," he continued. "The word of Jesus, the holy Gospel, teaches that the real blessed are those poor in spirit, the non-violent, the meek, the makers of peace and justice."

"This is the force that changes the world," said Francis. "There is no other way to change the world."

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

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