'Wealth impoverishes': In Cuba, Francis begs for poor church

This story appears in the Francis in Cuba feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis on Sunday made what may be the strongest and most pointed call of his pontificate thus far for the Catholic church to abandon wealth and adopt a stance of poverty -- telling bishops, priests and religious here that God loves and wants a poor church.

In a striking, 25-minute, off-the-cuff speech that amounted to a manifesto outlining his vision for the global Catholic community, Francis begged the religious: "Love poverty like you love your mother."

"Wealth impoverishes," the pontiff told those gathered for the meeting in Havana's Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. "It takes away the best that we have. It makes us poor. It places our faith in something else."

In contrast, the pope said: "The spirit of poverty is a spirit of dispossession, of leaving everything to follow Jesus."

Later in his remarks, Francis strongly re-emphasized his frequent call for mercy from priests towards lay faithful, especially when they hear confessions.

"When that man or woman shows you their misery, pay attention because it's the same one that you have," he told the priests in the incredibly hot and humid cathedral, with sweat dotting his face.

"When they show you their misery, please ... don’t punish them," the pope exhorted.

"If you don't have a sin, throw the first stone but only in that condition," he continued. "If not, think about your sins and think about how you could be that person. And think about how you could potentially go even lower."

"You have one sole function: The mercy of God," the pontiff told the priests. "Please ... do not tire of forgiving. Be forgivers. Do not tire of forgiving. Be like Jesus."

Quoting St. Ambrose, Francis said: "Where there is mercy, there is Jesus. Where there is rigidness, only his ministers are there."

"Brother priests, do not be afraid of mercy," the pope said. "Let it flow through your hands and through all of that rigidness."

Francis spoke in Havana Sunday on the evening of his first full day of a three-city tour to this island nation. He leaves Cuba Tuesday to visit the U.S. cities of Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

See the full itinerary, including times, for Pope Francis' Sept. 19-27 pastoral visits to Cuba and the US.

The pope's remarks to the religious were notable for the extensive manner in which he outlined his desire for a poor and merciful church, while reflecting on the Gospel story of the young man who turned away from following Jesus when Jesus told him he would need to give away his wealth to become a disciple.

The pontiff at one point quoted St. Ignatius of Loyola, one of the founders of his Jesuit order, who said that poverty was both the wall and the mother of religious life.

"The mother because it engendered more trust in God and the wall because it protected it from all worldliness," Francis explained. He then asked how many generous souls were "destroyed" like that of the man in the Gospel story because "worldliness began sticking to them and they ended up badly."

"Love poverty like you love your mother," the pope told the bishops, priests and religious. "I simply suggest to you ... I think it might do good to our lives."

Shortly after speaking in the Cathedral Sunday evening, Francis again spoke pointedly off the cuff in a meeting with Cuban young people at a Havana cultural center. In that address, he forcefully encouraged them not to allow themselves to be closed up into one ideology but to accept diversity of thought.

In those remarks, the pope was responding to a speech given by a young Cuban man, who said he and his peers are united by "hope of profound change for Cuba, where our country will be a home that welcomes all its young people no matter how they think and wherever they are."

"Sometimes we're very closed," the pope told the young people. "We put ourselves into our own little world and we say the way I want that or nothing at all."

"When a religion closes itself up in its 'own little convent' it loses the best of itself, which is to look to God," said Francis. "And when I have my ideology, my way of thinking and you have yours, I close myself within that 'little convent' of ideology."

"Why do we always throw the stone against the person who thinks differently?" the pontiff asked. "Why do we only shake hands with those we have something in common with?"

"[We should] encourage ourselves to speak about what we have in common and, afterwards, we can speak about the things about which we think differently," Francis said.

"I said speak, I didn't say fight!" he joked.

The pope's remarks on diversity of thought carry special significance in Cuba, where for decades Communist Party leaders have quashed dissent against government policies and have jailed those who they deem too vocal in their opposition. Several of those critical of the government were arrested in public Sunday before an open-air Mass celebrated by Francis in Havana's Revolution Square, apparently after trying to distribute leaflets.

The pontiff is using his combined visit to Cuba and the U.S. to try to build bridges between the long-isolated nations, which have both credited him with playing an essential role in their recent thawing of relations.

In the Mass with hundreds of thousands earlier on Sunday in Revolution Square, Francis drew a distinction between service that is meant to help all people and that geared only toward people of one political or social group.

In a square known as the gathering place for political rallies, and decorated with a several-story-tall artistic depiction of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, the pope pointedly said: "Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people."

Francis later had separate meetings Sunday with Cuban President Raul Castro and his predecessor and brother Fidel. The meeting with Raul was held in private at the presidential palace, while the meeting with Fidel was held in private at the former leader's residence.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said the meeting between the pope and Fidel Castro lasted about 30-40 minutes and was attended by about 10-15 people, mostly family and close associates. No images have been made available of the encounter.

Lombardi described the encounter as "intimate" and "familial" and said the pope and the former president exchanged gifts and spoke of "the situation of humanity today, the great problems."

On Monday, the pope will travel some 400 miles for visits to the Cuban cities of Holguin and Santiago.

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

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