Pope Francis wrapped up his nine-day, three-nation apostolic trip to South America this evening amid the exuberant enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of Paraguayan young people.
The Holy Father spoke to them entirely off-the-cuff, joking that “discourses are boring,” and asking that his prepared text be made available for later reflection.
He spoke briefly, drawing largely from the testimonies of two young people who shared their stories. The first, a young woman named Liz, explained that she is 25 years old and is caring for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and her grandmother. Her mother, she said, thinks that their roles are reversed and that she (the mother) is the child of her daughter. She explained how she has to help her to shower, to change her diapers and care for her.
The second person who spoke, a young man named Manuel, explained how when he was a child, he had to leave his parent’s home and go to the capital city to work, because his parents could not support him. There in the capital, he was mistreated and exploited. Now at the age of 18, after meeting God through a youth ministry, he says he is ready to serve others.
When the Pope began speaking, he explained that the young man who read the Gospel after the testimonies, a youth named Orlando, when he came to greet the Pope after the reading, asked him to pray for the grace of liberty for each person present.
“Liberty is a gift that God gives but we have to know how to receive it,” the Holy Father said. He explained that we have to learn how to have a free heart, since in the world, there are so many ties that bind the heart: Exploitation, a lack of things needed to survive, drug addiction, sadness. “All these things take away our liberty.”
He led the youth in a prayer: “Lord Jesus, give me a free heart,” he prayed, “that I might not be a slave to all the traps of the world, that I might not be a slave to comfort, to deception, that I might not be a slave of the good life, … a slave of vice … a slave of a false liberty, which is doing what I like in every moment.”
Francis told the young people to ask for this grace every day.
Then drawing from the testimony of the young woman, he said that she gives the lesson of not being like Pontius Pilate. He noted how easy it would be to put her mom in one care home, her grandma in another, and to live her young life carefree.
Instead, she became as a servant, he said, and serves with affection. “And this is called solidarity. when we take up the burdens of others,” he said.
She has the grace that Orlando asked for, the Pontiff said, the grace of a free heart. She has a very high level of solidarity, he said, a very high level of love. “There is someone who teaches us to love.”
Turning then to Manuel’s testimony, he led the crowd in a prayer of gratitude, reminding them that so many youth do not have the opportunity to study, to have their meals provided by their family, to have what they need.
“As you see, life is not easy for many youth. I want you to understand this. I want you to get this in your head,” he said. If for me, life has been relatively easy, there are many youth for whom it hasn’t been easy.
Francis continued, noting how both of those who spoke mentioned knowing Jesus.
“I began to get to know Jesus. To know Jesus. And this is to open the door to hope. I got to know Jesus, my strength,” he said, citing the youths. “To know Jesus is fortitude. To know Jesus is hope and fortitude. And this is what we need of young people today.”
He urged the youth to flee from being young people of “neither yes nor no,” who live tired, with a face of boredom. We need young people who are strong, with hope and strength. Who have hope and strength because they know Jesus and know God. Because they have a free heart.
“But for this,” the Pope cautioned, “you need sacrifice. You have to go against the current. The Beatitudes that we read a bit ago are Jesus’ plan for us. And it is a plan against the current.”
He told the young people to go home and read the Beatitudes. “They are in the fifth chapter of Matthew,” he said, and then tested the youth to see if they were listening: “What chapter?” and they responded, “fifth.” “Of which Gospel?” “Of Matthew.”
In this last event of the Pope’s apostolic trip in Paraguay, the Holy Father told the young people, “I have to go.”
“No!” they shouted back.
But the Pontiff brought them to silence as he led them again in prayer: “Everyone now in silence, we are going to lift up our hearts, each one,” he said. Lord Jesus, I thank you because I am here. Thank you because you gave me brothers such as Liz and Manuel. … Jesus I pray for the young people who don’t know that you are their strength and are afraid of living, of being happy, who are afraid of dreaming.”
“Jesus teaches us to dream,” he said, “to dream big, to dream of wonderful things. … Jesus gives us strength, gives us a free heart, gives us hope, gives us love.”
“Pray for me,” he concluded, “and for so many people who don’t have the grace that you have, of having known Jesus.”
Several minutes later, after a farewell ceremony with the president at the airport, just before 7:30 local time, the Pope boarded the plane that takes him back to Rome.