The Holy Father Francis left the Vatican by helicopter at 7 o’clock this morning, to go to Prato and Florence, on the occasion of the 5th National Congress of the Church in Italy.

On his arrival at the Lungobisenzio sports field, the Pope was received by the Bishop, Franco Agostinelli; by the Prefect, Dr. Maria Laura Simonetti, and by the Mayor, Dr. Matteo Biffoni.

The Holy Father then went by car to the Cathedral, where he venerated the relic of the “Holy Sash” of Our Lady and greeted the Members of the Chapter, a group of sick persons, some elderly priests and some cloistered nuns.

Pope Francis then appeared on the exterior pulpit of the Cathedral for his meeting with the faithful gathered in the Square below and, after the greeting of the Bishop of Prato, H.E. Monsignor Franco Agostinelli, he gave the following address that we translate below.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning!

I thank your Bishop, Monsignor Agostinelli, for the very courteous words he addressed to me. I greet you all affectionately and those that cannot be physically present here, in particular sick and elderly persons and those detained in the district house.

I have come as a pilgrim, a pilgrim, passing through! -- not much, but at least there is the will -- to this city rich in history and beauty, which in the course of the centuries has merited the description “Mary’s city.” You are fortunate, because you are in good hands! They are maternal hands that always protect, open to receive. You are also privileged because you keep the relic of the “Holy Sash” of Our Lady, which I have just been able to visit.

This sign of blessing for your city suggests some thoughts to me, inspired also by the Word of God. The first refers us to the journey of salvation that the people of Israel undertook, from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Before liberating them, the Lord asked them to celebrate the Passover supper and to consume it in a particular way: “with their loins girded” (Exodus 12:11). To gird one’s loins means to be ready; to prepare to leave; to go out to start on the way. The Lord exhorts us to this also today, today more than ever: not to remain closed in indifference, but to open ourselves; to feel that we are, all of us, called and ready to leave something to reach someone, with whom to share the joy of having encountered the Lord and also the effort to walk on the way. We are asked to go out to get close to the men and women of our time. To go out certainly means to risk – to go out means to risk – but there is no faith without risk. A faith that thinks of itself and is closed at home is not faithful to the invitation of the Lord, who calls his own to take the initiative and involve themselves without fear. In face of the often dizzying transformations of these last years, there is the danger of suffering the whirlwind of events, losing the courage to seek the route. Then the refuge of a safe port is preferred and one refuses to put to sea on the word of Jesus. However the Lord, who wants to reach one who still does not love Him, prods us. He wants to have born in us a renewed missionary passion and He entrusts a great responsibility to us. He asks the Church His Bride to walk on the rough ways of today, to accompany one who has lost the way; to plant tents of hope, in which to receive one who is wounded and no longer expects anything from life. The Lord asks this of us.

He himself gives us the example, coming close to us. In fact, the Holy Sash also recalls the gesture made by Jesus during his Passover supper, when he , as a servant, and washed the feet of his disciples (cf. John 13:4; Luke 12:37). So that, as He did, so also should we do. We were served by God who made Himself our neighbor, so that we, in turn, would serve one who is close to us. No neighbor can be distant for a disciple of Jesus. In fact, far-off persons do not exist who are too distant, but only close to be reached. I thank you for the constant efforts that your community makes to integrate every person, opposing the culture of indifference and of discarding.  In times marked by uncertainties and fear, your efforts are praiseworthy to support the weakest and families, that you are also committed to “adopt.” While you do your utmost in the search for the best concrete possibilities of inclusion, do not get discouraged in face of the difficulties. Do not be resigned in face of what seem to be difficult situations of coexistence; be animated always by the desire to establish true and proper “pacts of proximity.” There you are, proximity! You must get close to do this.

There is yet another suggestion that I would like to propose to you. Saint Paul invites Christians to put on a particular armor, that of God. He says, in fact, to be clothed with the necessary virtues to face our real enemies, who are never others, but “the spirits of evil.” Truth appears in the first place of this ideal armor: “having girded your loins with truth,” writes the Apostle (Ephesians 6:14). We must gird ourselves with truth. No good can be founded on the schemes of lies and the lack of transparency. To seek and choose truth is not always easy; however, it is a vital decision, which must mark profoundly each one’s existence and also that of society, so that it is more just, so that it is more honest. The sacredness of every human being calls for respect for every one, hospitality and fitting work. Fitting work! I permit myself here to recall the five men and two women of Chinese citizenship who died two years ago in a fire in the industrial area of Prato. They lived and slept inside the industrial shed itself in which they worked: a small dormitory was made in an area with cardboard and plaster cardboard with bunk beds to take advantage of the height of the structure. It is a tragedy of exploitation and of inhuman conditions of life. And this is not fitting work! The life of every community calls for combating in depth  the cancer of corruption., the cancer of human labor exploitation and the poison of illegality. Within ourselves and together with others, let us never tire of fighting for truth and justice. I encourage everyone, especially you young people  -- I was told that you, young people, held an all-night Prayer Vigil yesterday. Thank you, thank you! – and never yield to pessimism and to resignation. Mary is she who with prayer and with love, in active silence, transformed the Saturday of disappointment into the dawn of the Resurrection. If anyone feels exhausted and oppressed by the circumstances of life, count on our Mother, who is close and consoles because she is Mother! She always heartens us and invites us to put our trust again in God. Her Son will not betray our expectations and He will sow in our hearts a hope that does not disappoint. Thank you.

[Original text: Italian]

[Translation by ZENIT]

At the end of his discourse, the Holy Father went down to the churchyard of the Cathedral and greeted some representatives of the ecclesial, civil, entrepreneurial and working communities of the city. Then he went by car to the municipal sports field where he took leave of Prato, and then took off by helicopter for Florence.