It is difficult to describe the excitement of thousands of people awaiting on a main road for Pope Francis to pass by on his way from Santiago’s airport into the city centre. He had been welcomed at the airport by the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. When he passed by in his motorcade and waved to the crowds, a great shout of sheer joy went up. “Viva el Papa”—Long live the Pope. The crowd waved their yellow and white flags to welcome Francis to Chile. Many people were crying.
This was the beginning of Francis’ three day visit to Chile, from January 15th to the 18th, 2018, where nearly 2,000,000 Chilean would come out to welcome Francis and millions others watched on TV.
As the visit was getting closer, families reminisced about the previous papal visit of Pope St John Paul 11 in 1987. This visit helped bring about the collapse of the dictatorship of Pinochet and the peaceful return to democracy.
The Chile that Francis now came to visit is a vastly different country. It has become a much more secularized country, with a drop to 60% the percentage of people identifying as Catholics in the country. The sex abuse scandal by priests and cover up by Church authorities has caused a lot of anger and disillusionment.
Before the visit of Francis, five churches in Santiago were fire bombed and the Apostolic Nunciature in Santiago was occupied by a small group of people protesting the cost of the visit of Francis. In the Mapuche indigenous area south of Santiago, 27 Catholic and Pentecostal churches have been burnt in the last 3 years by Mapuche activists.
While it is important to acknowledge there was plenty of media coverage of small well organized groups protesting for various reasons the visit of Francis, for the vast majority of Chilean Catholics, the visit of Francis was a great blessing. Chileans are used to protests.
Six of the eight television channels had all day live coverage. It is common to hear people say that they could not tear themselves away from the TV. Many restaurants had television sets screening the events.
The visit was designed to be environmentally sustainable, to avoid pollution and to recycle all the material used in the large public Masses for housing for the poor. Efforts were made to minimize consumption, to maximize the use of resources and to reduce the carbon footprint.
Over 20,000 mostly young people freely gave their time as volunteers for the papal visit. Many of these volunteers worked all night, with no sleep, preparing for the visit. Maria Carmen Valdez is a young woman who volunteered for the huge Mass in O’Higgins Park in Santiago, “I never slept for 28 hours and it was one of the most powerful and happiest moments of my life”, she told me.
Marcela Romo arrived at 2.am as the gates of O’Higgins Park were open to the public to prepare for the Mass by Francis at 10.30 am. “The atmosphere was magic. Rich people, poor people, old people, young people, all sharing together their joy at the visit of Francis.”
Over 400,000 people, together with 1000 priests and the Bishops of Chile, religious and deacons, participated in the Mass in O’Higgins Park, which could only accommodate this number. One of our parish youth leaders, Gilda Astorga, said that after waiting eight and a half hours for the Mass, “I could not get over the prayerful atmosphere, the silence, the respect and devotion during the Mass. It was so powerful, so moving”.
Francis met with a group of victims of sex abuse by priests. He also profoundly apologized publicly for these abuses in the Church and asked for forgiveness.
He also met with homeless people at a large shelter where he shared a meal of fried pumpkin bread and addressed them in his friendly style. He also met former political prisoners from the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship, with academics at the Catholic University and with all the clergy in the Cathedral.
At a gathering of tens of thousands of youth, Francis, in his chatty style, told the youth that just as they like to remain connected to internet and Wifi, “remain connected to Jesus. Jesus is your password”.
Over 250,000 people attended the Mass in Temuco, 800 kilometres south of Santiago. Here Francis called on the indigenous Mapuche people to continue their struggle for justice and a better life, but in a non-violent way. Later he had lunch with Mapuche leaders.
For many people, the most moving part of the entire visit of Francis was his visit to 600 women prisoners in a jail in Santiago. Mothers here are allowed to keep their babies until they reach three years of age. Francis replied tenderly to the speech by one of the prisoners about not losing one’s dignity and working towards successful reinsertion into society. He then mixed with the women, nursing many of their babies. Most people say that there was not a single dry eye watching this event on television.
The final event of Francis’ visit to Chile was a Mass celebrated on the beach sand dunes in Iquique, 1800 kilometres north of Santiago for 150,000 people. Another 100, 000 lined the streets on the way to the Mass. At 10,000 metres above sea level, on the flight to Iquique, Francis took the unusual step of marrying cabin crew members, Paula and Carlos, who were totally overwhelmed and delighted.
How to sum up the impact of the visit of Francis to Chile! I think the words of Alejandro Silva, a lapsed Catholic, sums up what it meant for many people. “I always thought that the pope was so remote and out of touch with ordinary people. I have now changed my view. I really like Francis. His visit touched me, made me think and challenged my opinions about life. I feel close to him.”
Columban Fr Dan Harding