Santa Cruz: Pope Francis reached the halfway mark of his South American pilgrimage on Thursday, celebrating his first Mass in Bolivia and meeting with workers' cooperatives and other grass-roots groups representing the poor whose causes have long been championed by history's first Latin American pope.
All night and through dawn, Bolivians streamed into the Christ the Redeemer plaza in the center of this southeastern Bolivian city for Francis' Mass. The government declared a national holiday so workers and students could attend the ceremony, which featured an altar carved from wood by artisans of the Chiquitano people, one of the country's 36 indigenous groups.
Later in the day, Francis was to meet with priests and seminarians and attend the second world summit of "popular movements," a collection of non-governmental organisations representing street sellers, fishermen, farmers and "cartoneros," who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods.
When Francis headlined the first such summit at the Vatican last October, he issued a remarkable, off-the-cuff monologue on the injustice of unemployment, the scandal of poverty and the obligation to care for the Earth. "Terra, Techo, Trabajo," was his mantra then. "Land, Roof, Work."
"When I talk about this, some people think the pope is a communist," he told the gathering. "They don't realize that love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel."
Francis arrived in Bolivia from Ecuador yesterday, embraced by President Evo Morales on the tarmac of the airport in La Paz where Francis praised Bolivia for taking "important steps" to include the poor and marginalised in the political and economic life of South America's poorest country.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president with a socialist bent, came to power championing Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups and enshrined their rights in the constitution. Under his leadership Bolivia's economy has boomed thanks to high prices for its natural gas and minerals.
But Morales has roiled the local Catholic Church by taking a series of anti-clerical initiatives, including a new constitution that made the overwhelmingly Catholic Bolivia a secular country. As soon as Morales took office in 2006, the Bible and cross were removed from the presidential palace and Andean religious rituals have now replaced Catholic rites at official state ceremonies.
In his speech, Francis noted the Catholic faith took "deep root" in Bolivia centuries ago "and has continued to shed its light upon society, contributing to the development of the nation and shaping its culture."