Pope Francis cast himself as the spiritual and political leader of the world's oppressed on Thursday evening with a remarkable mea culpa for the sins and crimes of the Catholic Church against the indigenous peoples during the colonial conquest of the Americas.
Francis “humbly” begged forgiveness at a gathering of indigenous leaders in Bolivia in the presence of Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales, the climactic high of Francis' weeklong South American tour.
In the speech, Francis noted that Latin American church leaders in the past had acknowledged that “grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” St. John Paul II, for his part, apologized to the continent's indigenous for the “pain and suffering” caused during the 500 years of the church's presence in the Americas during a 1992 visit to the Dominican Republic.
But Francis went further, and said he was doing so with “regret.”
“I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was St. John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Then deviating from his prepared script, he added: “I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross. There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples.“
Francis' apology was met with wild applause from the indigenous and other grass-roots groups gathered for a world summit of popular movements whose fight against injustice and social inequality has been championed by the pope.
“We accept the apologies. What more can we expect from a man like Pope Francis?“said Adolfo Chavez, a leader of a lowlands indigenous group. “It's time to turn the page and pitch in to start anew. We indigenous were never lesser beings.”
The apology was significant given the controversy that has erupted in the United States over Francis' planned canonization of the 18th century Spanish priest Junipero Serra, who set up missions across California. Native Americans contend Serra brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity, wiping out villages in the process, and have opposed his canonization. The Vatican insists Serra defended natives from colonial abuses.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Francis wrote the speech on his own and that the apology for the sins, offenses and crimes of the church was a “particularly important declaration.”
Church officials have long insisted Catholic missionaries protected indigenous peoples from the abuses of military colonizers and were often punished by European colonial powers as a result. Francis' own Jesuit order developed missions across the continent, educating the indigenous and turning their communities into organized Christian-Indian societies before eventually being expelled.
During the speech, the longest and most important of Francis' weeklong, three-nation South American trip, the pope touched on some of the priorities of his pontificate, a key one being the need to change what he called an unjust global economic system that excludes the poor. He said it should be replaced with a “communitarian economy” involving the “fitting distribution” of the Earth's resources.
“Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the Earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It's a moral obligation,” he said.
Francis ended the speech with a fierce condemnation of the world's governments for what he said was “cowardice” in defending the planet. Echoing his environmental encyclical of last month, the pope said the Earth “is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity” while “one international summit after another takes place without any significant result.”
Earlier on Thursday, Francis celebrated his first public Mass in Bolivia by lambasting the “throwaway” global culture that discards anyone considered unproductive, adding that everyone has a moral duty to help the poor.
Before dawn, Bolivians streamed into the Christ the Redeemer plaza in the center of Santa Cruz, the country’s largest and fastest growing city, for the pontiff’s Mass, which featured readings in Guaraní and Aimara, two of Bolivia’s indigenous languages.
In his homily, Francis warned his listeners against an attitude of resignation before the great challenges facing society because “it disorients us, it closes our heart to others, especially to the poor.”
“Faced with so many kinds of hunger in our world, we can say to ourselves: ‘Things don't add up; we will never manage, there is nothing to be done.’ And so our hearts yield to despair,” he said.
He used the biblical story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus' apostles wanted him to send crowds away because there would be no way to feed all of them.
The Bible story says Jesus multiplied the food but some modern biblical scholars believe the real miracle was that he convinced everyone to share what they had.
Francis said the story had “particular resonance” in today's world, and told his audience: “No one needs to go away, no one needs to be discarded; you yourselves, give them something to eat. Jesus speaks these words to us, here in this square.”
The 78-year-old pontiff, on the fifth day of his three-nation tour of South America, was showing a few signs of fatigue but generally appears to be holding up well despite the changes in altitude and temperature.
On the first leg of his tour, in Ecuador, the pope on Tuesday appealed to the world not to turn its back on the “reality” of environmental decay and its effects on the poor.
Francis arrived in Bolivia on Wednesday and praised Bolivia's social reforms to spread wealth under leftist President Evo Morales. On Friday, he will walk into Bolivia's notorious Palmasola prison.
Morales' strained relations with the Catholic Church have begun thawing under the Argentine-born pontiff's papacy. Morales warmly embraced the pope seven years after denouncing the Church as “an instrument of domination.”
The pope leaves on Friday for Paraguay, the last stop on his Latin American trip.
Al Jazeera and wire services