(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Sunday made a brief but poignant visit to one of the slum areas of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, Bañado Norte, to hear firsthand the problems facing the poorest people of the city.
Sean-Patrick Lovett reports……
“Bañados” means marshy wetlands. For half a century it was a swamp where the Paraguay River overflowed its banks in the rainy season. It was also Asunciòn’s garbage dump. Today it’s home to some 100,000 people, of whom only one in ten is formally employed. The rest make their living primarily by collecting, sorting and reselling garbage.
The key to their survival has been solidarity: from the simplest kind of sharing meals and clothing with those in need, to complex forms of monetary redistribution that allow the sick to buy medicines and talented young people to further their studies. In short, Bañado Norte is a highly organized neighbourhood community.
And that’s the first thing Pope Francis acknowledged when he visited the area on Sunday, the last day of his 8-day, 3-nation pastoral visit to Latin America. “I want to be your neighbour”, he said. “I want to bless your faith, your hands and your community”. Praising the solidarity that holds the Bañado Norte community together, the Pope linked it with faith, stressing how “Faith awakens our commitment, our solidarity… A faith which does not draw us into solidarity is a faith which is dead”, he said. He even went off-script several times in order to reinforce the idea that “faith and solidarity” is the message the poor of Paraguay need to communicate to the world outside.
Now the poor of Bañado Norte are facing a new challenge: forced relocation at the hands of real estate speculators who have started showing keen interest in the area because of its strategic river-bank location. Both of the women who addressed the Pope at the event, referred to the very real threat of eviction for residents who have built up this community and lived here for over 30 years. “We are seen as a social liability”, said one of them, “a problem to be solved”. Both said they hoped the Pope’s presence would help draw attention to their cause which would see them consulted about their future and consider them a proactive “part of the solution”.
Francis did not address the issue directly in his discourse, but when he told the people of Bañado Norte: “I could not come to Paraguay without spending some time with you, here on your land”, he did lay heavy vocal emphasis on the possessive pronoun, “your”.
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