Pope Francis surprise visit in Rome: “transform deserts”

(Vatican Radio)  “We must not be afraid to go into the desert and to transform it into a forest:” that’s what Pope Francis told hundreds of people on a surprise visit to an Earth Day Italy and Focolari Movement event in a Rome park Sunday.

In the more than hour-long visit, the Pope listened to testimonials from members of the many volunteer social and environmental organizations participating in “Village for Earth” and “Mariapolis,” a four day event in Rome’s Villa Borghese park.

The idea behind these gatherings, which take place in many countries throughout the world, is the invitation “to do to others what we would like to be done to us.” Many of the 3,500 people participating in the Rome event are involved in networks of social solidarity, interreligious dialogue, and organizations which care for the environment.

Turn deserts of our cities, the lives of others, into forests

Pope Francis arrived just before 5:00 pm, but set aside his prepared remarks, preferring to speak off the cuff.  He told  those present “you transform deserts into forests!”  “There are many deserts in the cities,” the Pope continued, “deserts in people’s lives who don’t have a future, because there’s always – I’ll underline a word here – always there are prejudices, fears.  These people live and die in the desert of the cities.  You perform a miracle with your work of changing the desert into a forest: go forward that way.”

“The desert is ugly, both the desert in the heart of all of us, as well as the desert in the city, in the peripheries, which is also an ugly thing.  There’s also a desert that’s in the gated neighborhoods…it’s ugly, but the desert is there too.  We must not be afraid to go to the desert to transform it into a forest, where there’s exuberant life, and to go dry the many tears so that everyone can smile.”

Pope Francis urged them to not be discouraged by failures and challenges: “You must not be afraid of life or afraid of conflicts.”

Conflict is a risk but also an opportunity

Conflict, he said, “is a risk, but it’s also an opportunity.” Citing the parable of the Levite and the priest who walked past the man who had stumbled along the path, the Pope said, they took the “path of not seeing and not getting involved.”

“We can react to conflict as something from which we distance ourselves,” he observed.  But, “whoever doesn’t take risks, can never get close to reality.  To know reality, to know it in one’s heart, it’s necessary to get close.”  Taking  the example of prison ministry, the Pope added that getting close is “a risk, but it’s also an opportunity: for me, and for the person whom I approach.  For me, and for the community I approach.”

“Never, never, never, turn away in order not to see conflict,” stressed the Pope.  “Conflict has to be faced, evils have to be faced, in order to resolve them.”

Pope Francis then challenged those present to do some homework: “look at the faces of people when you go into the street – they are worried, everyone is closed in on themselves; they lack a smile.  In other words, they lack tenderness, social friendship… they lack social friendship.”

A lack of “social friendship” brings hatred and war

“Where there isn’t social friendship,” he said, “there’s always hatred and war. We are living a piecemeal Third World War, everywhere.  Look at the geographic map of the world, and you’ll see.”

“Social friendship has to do with forgiveness,” he added.  “Many times, that’s done by getting close:  I approach this problem, this conflict, this difficulty, as we heard is done by these great young people in the places where there’s gambling, and so many people there lose everything, everything, everything…”

He mentioned the work of those who minister to people affected by gamblingand remembered his own pastoral work in Buenos Aires where he “saw elderly people who went  to the bank to get their pensions and then headed immediately for the casino.”

Social friendship, he added, “has to do with gratuity [giving freely of oneself], and one has to learn the wisdom of gratuity, learn it with play…with sport, with art, with the joy of being together, with getting close.”

Counter the god of money with gratuity, forgiveness

Today, “it seems that if you don’t pay you can’t live,” the Pope noted. “The man and woman that God created to be the center of the world…at the center of the economy,” “are thrown out and instead, we have at the center at the center a god, the god of money”

Gratuity, giving freely of oneself, and forgiveness are the antidotes to such a negative world – as is a constructive, rather than destructive, mindset.   And, “with forgiveness,” he said, “regret and resentment fall away.”

But how to achieve such a forest in the desert?  “Simply [by possessing] the awareness that we all have something in common, we’re all human,” concluded Pope Francis.  “And in this humanity, we can get close to each other to work together” regardless of our background or religion the Pope affirmed.

“Let’s all go forward to work together, respecting each other, respecting!” he added.  “I see this miracle: the miracle of a desert that becomes a forest.  Thanks for everything you do!”