(above) Video | Pope Francis Celebrates Mass in Bolivia Pope Francis celebrated mass in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Thursday during his tour of south America.


In Bolivia, Pope Francis Apologizes for Church's 'Grave Sins'



SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Pope Francis offered a direct apology on Thursday for the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the oppression of Latin America during the colonial era, even as he called for a global social movement to shatter a "new colonialism" that has fostered inequality, materialism and the exploitation of the poor.

Speaking to a hall filled with social activists, farmers, garbage workers and Bolivian indigenous people, Francis offered the most ambitious, and biting, address of his South American tour.

He repeated familiar themes in sharply critiquing the global economic order and warning of environmental catastrophe — but also added a twist with his apology.

"Some may rightly say, 'When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church,' " Francis said. "I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God."

(below) 2 Pope Francis met Thursday with President Evo Morales of Bolivia and apologized for the church's "sins" during Latin America's colonial era. David Mercado / Reuters

He added: "I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America."

Francis, an Argentine, is the first Latin American pope, and his apology comes as he is trying to position the church as a refuge and advocate for the poor and dispossessed of his native continent.

During his visit to Ecuador, and now Bolivia, Francis has made broad calls for Latin American unity — on Thursday mentioning "Patria Grande," the historic ambition to make the continent a unified world force — even as he has sidestepped some local controversies.

Bolivia suffered stark exploitation during Spanish rule, as silver deposits helped finance the Spanish empire, bankroll European colonialism elsewhere and also fill the treasury of the Vatican. Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, is a longtime leftist critic of the church, yet on Thursday he spoke before the pope and praised him.

(below) Pope Francis spoke in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Thursday at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, a congress of global activists. Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

Francis' criticism of multinational corporations and global capitalism has already brought him criticism and suspicions among some who question the leftist tint of his ideas.

Mr. Morales, a fierce critic of American corporate influence, wore a white shirt and a dark jacket bearing a picture of the Communist revolutionary Che Guevara on the left breast.

"For the first time, I feel like I have a pope: Pope Francis," Mr. Morales said.

Francis has filled four consecutive days with appearances, but other than an environmental critique offered in Ecuador, the pope had hewed mostly to theological topics or broad themes like family, service and mission.

His appearance on Thursday night was at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, a congress of global activists working to mobilize and help the poor. Some people wore Che Guevara T-shirts while some indigenous women wore traditional black bowlers.

Francis drew cheers when he called on the activists and others to change the social order: "I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three Ls — labor, lodging, land."

Francis repeated his condemnation of an economic system rooted in pursuit of money and profits, but in an aside he criticized "certain free-trade treaties" and "austerity, which always tightens the belt of workers and the poor" — a likely reference to Greece.

"Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money," he said. "Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth."

But if Francis again called for change, he also offered no detailed prescription.

"Don't expect a recipe from this pope," he said. "Neither the pope nor the church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solution to contemporary issues. I dare say no recipe exists."

In Latin America, Francis' apology will likely draw the most attention, though he told the audience that Pope John Paul II had already apologized.

In 2000, John Paul made a blanket apology from the Vatican, asking forgiveness from Jews, ethnic populations on different continents and other groups. Francis' apology was specific and made on Bolivian soil.

Yet Francis's agenda for the trip includes bolstering the church, and he noted that many priests and laity had acted with courage on behalf of Latin America and said Catholicism was integral to the continent's identity.

"An identity which here, as in other countries, some powers are committed to erasing, at times because our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of Mammon," he said.
Inside the conference hall, Francis' words resonated. Isabel Olivo, 64, an Uruguayan dairy farmer, praised the speech.

"Now what is needed is that what he said goes onto the agenda of all the politicians and the movements, that it goes on their work agenda and doesn't get buried on their desks," she said.

And Alfredo Marco, 48, a taxi driver and representative of neighborhood councils in Santa Cruz, praised the pope as speaking the "same language as President Evo, the same words."

"There are two popes, Pope Francis and Pope Evo," he said.

At the end of the speech, Francis made his familiar request that people pray for him, but mindful that this was a more secular crowd, he added that if people could not pray for him that "you think well of me and that you send me good energy."