Pope Francis with the Foundation for Birth. Photo: Vatican Media

Pope Francis on the Lack of Babies: Concerns and Hopes in a Great Address in Favour of Women and Young People

Speech of the Pope to the participants in the III edition of the General States of the Natality.

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(ZENIT Noticias / Roma, 05.12.2023).- On Friday morning, May 12, Pope Francis participated with an address in the third edition of the so-called “General States of Birth,” an Italian initiative that, in face of the demographic winter the country is experiencing (in 2022: 713,499 died against  392.598 in the same year) promotes births and policies that facilitate them. The event was held in the Auditorium of via della Conciliazione, a few meters from the Vatican.

Here is the Pope’s address translated into English. It was pronounced in the presence of the country’s Prime Minister, Mrs Giorgia Meloni. 

* * *

I apologize for not standing to speak, but I can’t cope with the pain when I am standing. I greet you all and thank you for your commitment. Thank you to Gigi De Palo, President of the Fondazione per la Natalità (Foundation for Birth,” ndt), for his words and for the invitation, because I believe the topic of birth is central for all, especially for the future of Italy and of Europe. 

I would like to offer only two “photographs” that have happened here, in the Square [of Saint Peter]. Fifteen days ago, my secretary was in the Square  and a mother came with a pram. He, a priest of tender heart, approached her to bless the baby. . .[but] it was a small dog! Fifteen days ago, in the Wednesday Audience, I was going to greet [the people] and I arrived in front of a lady, who was about fifty, more or less. I greeted the lady and she opened a bag and said to me: “Bless my baby” [it was] a little dog! I lost my patience there and scolded the lady: “Lady, so many children who are hungry, and you with the little dog!” Brothers and sisters, these are scenes at present, but if things continue this way, this will be the custom of the future, let’s beware.

In fact, the birth of children is the principal indicator to measure the hope of a people. If few are born, it means that there is little hope. And this not only has economic and social consequences, but it undermines confidence in the future. I heard that last year Italy reached an historical minimum of births: only 393,000 new-borns. It’s a figure that reveals a great concern for the morrow. Today, to bring children into the world is perceived as a family-run business. And this, unfortunately, conditions the mentality of the young generations, who believe in uncertainty, when not in disillusion and fear. They live in a social climate in which to found a family has become a titanic effort, instead of being a shared value that all recognize and support. To feel alone and obliged to trust only in one’s own strength is dangerous: it means to erode little by little life in common and to be resigned to solitary existences, in which each one has to cope alone. With the consequence that only the richest can permit themselves, thanks to their resources, more freedom when it comes to choosing what form to give their lives. And this is unjust, in addition to humiliating. 

Perhaps never as now, amid wars, pandemics, massive displacements and climate crises, the future seems uncertain. Friends, it’s true; it doesn’t just seem so, it’s true. Everything is speedy and even acquired certainties pass speedily. In fact, the speed that surrounds us increases the fragility that we carry within. And in this context of uncertainty and fragility, the younger generations experience more than anyone a feeling of precariousness, so that the morrow seems an impossible mountain to climb. 

I have spoken of the “crisis,” a key word. However, let us remember two things about the crisis: we don’t come out of the crisis alone; either we all come out or we don’t come out; and we don’t come out of the crisis the same: we come out better or worse. Let’s remember this. This is the crisis of work, of prohibitive expensive housing, of sky-high  rent and insufficient salaries, which are real problems. They are problems that question the policies, because everyone can see that the free market, without the necessary correctives, becomes wild and causes situations and inequalities that are ever graver. 

A few years ago — I recall an anecdote of a queue in front of a transport business, a queue of women looking for work. One was told it was her turn . . . she presented the data . . . “Ok, you’ll work eleven hours a day and the salary will be 600 (euros). OK? And she said: “But how, with 600 euros . . . 11 hours .. .  one can’t live . . .” “Lady, look at the queue and choose. If you like it, take it, if you don’t like it, you’ll die of hunger.” This is somewhat the reality that is lived.  It’s not a very friendly culture, if not hostile, to the family, focused, as it is, on the needs of the individual, where individual rights are constantly claimed and there is no talk of the rights of the family (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, 44). In particular, there are almost insurmountable limitations for women. The ones most harmed are precisely young women often obliged to make the choice between a professional career and motherhood, or crushed by the weight of caring for the family, especially in the presence of fragile elderly people and dependent persons. In this moment, women are slaves of this rule of selective work, which also hinders them from being mothers. 

Providence, of course, exists, and millions of families attest to it with their lives and their choices, but the heroism of so many cannot become an excuse for all. Hence, policies are needed with a vision of the future. A fertile terrain must be prepared so that a new spring can flower and leave behind this demographic winter. And, given that the terrain is common, as society and the future are common, it’s necessary to address the problem together, without ideological barriers or preconceived postures. 

The whole is important. It’s true that, also with your help, much has been done and for that I am grateful, but it’s still not enough. A change of mentality is necessary: the family is not part of the problem, but part of the solution. Hence, I wonder: is there someone who can look ahead with the courage to wager for families, for children, for young people? I hear so often mothers’ complaints. “Oh, my son graduated a long time ago . . . and he doesn’t get married, he stays at home . . . what should I do?” “Don’t iron his shirts, lady, let’s start there, then we’ll see.”

We cannot accept that our society cease to be generative and degenerate in sadness. Sadness comes when there is no generativity. It’s an ugly and grey discontent. We cannot accept passively that so many young people struggle to realize their family dream and are obliged to lower the list of desire, settling for private and mediocre substitutes: earn money, aspire to a career, travel, jealously guard free time . . . 

All these things are good and correct when they form part of a broader generative project, which gives life around and then of oneself. If, instead, they stay only in individual aspirations, they wilt in egoism and lead to that interior boredom. This is the state of mind of a non-generative society: interior boredom that anesthetizes great desires  and characterizes our society as a society of boredom! Let us give back breath to young peoples’ desire for happiness. Yes, they do have desires of happiness: let us give encouragement again, let’s open the way. Each one of us experiences the index of his own happiness: when we feel full of something that generates hope and warms the soul, it’s spontaneous to share it with others. On the contrary, when we are sad, grey, we are on the defensive, we close ourselves and perceive everything as a threat. Here, birth, as well as welcome, which must never be opposed because they are two sides of the same coin, reveal to us the degree of the society’s happiness. A happy community fosters naturally the desire to engender and integrate, to welcome, whereas an unhappy society  is reduced to a sum of individuals that try to defend what they have at all cost. And many times they forget to smile. 

Friends, after having shared the concerns I carry in my heart, I would like to give you a word that is very dear to me: hope. The challenge of births is a question of hope. But beware, hope is not, as  is often thought, optimism, it’s not a vague positive feeling about the future. “ Ah, you are a positive man, a positive woman, bravo! No, hope is something else. It’s not an illusion or an emotion one feels, no; it’s a concrete virtue, an attitude of life.  And it has to do with concrete options.  Hope is nourished by each one’s commitment to the good; it grows  when we feel participants and involved in giving meaning to our life and that of others. To nourish hope is, therefore, social intellectual, artistic, political  action in the loftiest sense of the word; it’s to put one’s own capacities and resources at the service of the common good, it’s to sow a future. Hope generates changes and improves the future. It’s the smallest of the virtues,” Peguy said, “it’s the smallest, but it’s the one that leads farthest! And hope doesn’t disappoint. There are so many Turandas in today’s life that say: “Hope always disappoints.’ The Bible tells us: “ Hope does not disappoint (cf. Romans 5:5).

I like to think of the “General States of Birth” — now in its third edition — as a work of building hope. A work we have not been charged to do, because someone pays, but in which we all work together precisely because all want to hope. That’s why I hope this edition will be an opportunity to “broaden the work,” to create, at many levels, a great alliance of hope. Here it’s good to see that the worlds of politics, business, banking, sport, shows, journalism come together to think how to pass from the demographic winter to the spring. About how to be born again, not only physically but interiorly, to come out into the light every day and to illuminate the morrow with hope. Brothers and sisters, let’s not resign ourselves to clumsiness and sterile pessimism, to the smile of compromise, no. Let us not think that history is already — permit me to say it in the language I prefer, that of the Bible –, it’s precisely in the most arid deserts where God opens new paths (cf. Isaiah 43:19). Let’s look together for those new paths in this arid desert.

Hope, in fact, calls us to start out to find solutions that give shape to a society to the measure of the historical moment that we are living, a time of marked crisis  given so many injustices. War is one of them. To reactivate the birth rate is to repair the forms of exclusion that affect young people and their future. And it’s a service for all: children are not individual goods; they are persons that contribute to the growth of all, contributing human and generational richness. They also contribute creativity to the heart of parents. To you who are here to find good solutions, fruit of your professionalism and competence, I wish to say: feel called to the great task to regenerate hope, to initiate processes that  stimulate and give life to Italy, to Europe, to the world, may they bring us many children. Thank you.


Translation of the Italian original into Spanish by ZENIT’s Editorial Director and, into English, by Virginia M. Forrester

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