CAGLIARI, Sardinia — Pope Francis denounced what he called big business’s idolatry of money as he traveled Sunday to one of Italy’s poorest regions to offer hope to the unemployed and entrepreneurs struggling to hang on.
“Where there is no work, there is no dignity,” he said.
Francis left aside his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff to thousands of people in Sardinia’s capital, telling them he knew well what it was like to suffer from financial crisis. He recalled that his Italian parents, who immigrated to Argentina before he was born, spoke about it often at home.
“My young father went to Argentina full of illusions of making it in America,” a somber Francis told the crowd at the start of a daylong visit to the island. “And he suffered the terrible crisis of the 1930s. They lost everything. There was no work.”
He said it’s easy for a priest to come and tell the poor to have courage, but that he really meant it. Amid shouts of “Lavoro! Lavoro!” (Work! Work!), Francis called for a dignified work for all.
Sardinia, known for its pristine beaches and swank vacation homes, has been particularly hard-hit by Italy’s economic crisis, with businesses closing and more and more of the island’s families forced to seek charity. The island’s desperation made headlines last year when a coal miner, participating in an underground sit-in to protest the planned closure of the mine, slashed his wrists on television.
Unemployment in Italy is at 12 percent, with youth unemployment a staggering 39.5 percent. In Sardinia and the rest of Italy’s south and islands, the figures are even worse: Unemployment is nearing 20 percent, with youth unemployment at 50 percent.
Francis told the Sardinians, some of whom wore hardhats from their defunct factory jobs, that the economic problems were the result of a global economic system “that has at its center an idol called money.”
Francis has made reaching out to the poor and most marginal the priority of his pontificate. This is only his second visit to an Italian city outside Rome; the first was to the isolated island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants come ashore each year.
Francis noted the similarity, saying both islands were places of immense suffering but also hope.
“It’s easy to say `don’t lose hope,'” he said. “But to all of you who have work, and to those who don’t, let me tell you: Don’t let yourselves be robbed of hope.”
Later, Francis celebrated Mass in the piazza outside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria, the island’s patron and namesake of Francis’ native Buenos Aires. The pope is particularly devoted to the Madonna and wanted to make a pilgrimage to the shrine.
After Mass, Francis met with the poor and some prisoners in the capital’s cathedral, delivered a speech at the island’s Catholic university and gave an off-the-cuff pep rally to young Sardinians gathered in a main square before returning to Rome.
He shared a personal detail with the kids, that Saturday had marked the 60th anniversary when he first felt the call to be a priest.
“In all these years that have passed, I’ve had some successes, joys, but also years of failure, fragility and sin,” he said. “Sixty years on the path of the Lord.”
In a sign that the exhausting day was starting to take its toll, Francis inadvertently slipped into his native Spanish in his final public remarks in Sardinia, which like many of Italy’s regions has its own dialect.
“Hah,” he chuckled. “Even I’m speaking dialect here.”