Pope calls for a welcoming Church

The altar at the papal Mass was decorated with fruits of the earth (CNS/Paul Haring)

Almost a million people attended Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Nu Guazu Park, Asuncion in Paraguay, at the end of his seven-day visit to South America. The crowd included tens of thousands from Francis’s homeland, Argentina – among them President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Tarasios of Buenos Aires. Earlier, the Holy Father visited a slum area on the outskirts of Asuncion which is home to some 1500 families.

Prayers during the papal Mass were said in Guarani, a native language of Paraguay, while traditional songs and hymns also formed a key part of the liturgy. The site of the celebration was decorated with fruits of the earth and expressions of local culture; the altar and stage were designed by Paraguayan artist, Koki Ruiz and incorporated coconuts, corn cobs, gourds and other plants and vegetables.

In his homily, Pope Francis told the congregation that a firm trust in God is learned within a family and within a community that has experienced the transforming power of God’s grace and knows it is called to share that grace with others. “Our communion with God always brings forth fruit, always gives life,” he said.

With open doors and hearts

“One thing is sure: We cannot force anyone to receive us, to welcome us,” he went on. “This is itself part of our poverty and freedom … At the same time, no one can force us not to be welcoming, hospitable in the lives of our people. No one can tell us not to accept and embrace the lives of our brothers and sisters, especially those who have lost hope and zest for life.”

The Pope described the Church as “a mother with an open heart”, who knows how to welcome and accept those who need care and compassion. “How much pain can be soothed, how much despair can be allayed in a place where we feel at home?” he asked. And he added that the Church is particularly blessed when it welcomes people of different cultures and sinners. “That is why we must keep our doors open, especially the doors to our hearts.”

Before celebrating this final Eucharist, Pope Francis made an unscheduled visit to Banado Norte, a muddy slum on the outskirts of Asuncion. Around 1500 families live in extreme poverty in an area which has been flooded many times. "I could not come to Paraguay without spending some time with you, here on your land," the Pope said on meeting the families who live there and listening to their personal stories. "I confess that as I arrived, everything reminded me of the Holy Family. To see your faces, your children, your elderly, and to hear about your experiences and everything you went through to be here, to have a dignified life and a roof over your heads, to endure the bad weather and the flooding of these last few weeks. Your struggles have not taken away your laughter, your joy and your hope. Struggles which have not lessened your sense of solidarity but if anything, have made it grow."

The papal visit to South America had also included Ecuador and Bolivia. In a Press Briefing on the way back to the Vatican, Pope Francis was keen to explain that when he had spoken earlier about the family being “in crisis”, he was not referring specifically to the forthcoming Synod on the Family but about the family “in general”. The Pope stressed that was praying “that the Lord would purify us from the crises” among families, that are described in the working document (Instrumentum Laboris) that has been drafted ahead of October's Synod.