On Wednesday Pope Francis will set foot on Bolivian soil, beginning a three-day visit to the country which one of its priests, who works in the Vatican, expects will strengthen the faith of its Catholics. Father Ariel Beramendi, the sole Bolivian priest working at the Vatican, told CNA he expects that Pope Francis' trip to his homeland will “revive and stir up the faith of Catholics” there. Pope Francis is currently in Ecuador, whence he will go to Bolivia July 8-10, after which he will visit Paraguay. Fr. Beramendi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cochabamba who prepares documents in Spanish and Portuguese at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said the Pope “has chosen three countries out of those experiencing unresolved social, economic and religious problems” for his South American visit. “Although these countries are on the same continent and speak the same language, without a doubt they have very different profiles and challenges, as well as a cultural richness, and a popular piety characteristic of each of them.” He noted Bolivia's multicultural richness — for example, there are more than 30 indigenous languages which have official state status alongside Spanish. He added that in recent years, prominent Bolivian politicians “have wanted to change the political concept of the state, and there have been moments of friction in relations with the Church … in Bolivia it’s public knowledge that the bishops have had difficult moments with the government, which the Pope will help to alleviate.” Fr. Beramendi said Bolivians “are a very religious people … the majority of the people are Catholic, but they live out their faith in a different way than in other countries.” He said Bolivia has “a popular piety where the faith isn’t lived out in an incisive manner, a radical way, and this is just what the Pope will awaken there.” “His visit will revive and stir up the faith of Catholics so that they don’t simply stand still in this popular piety, and its superficial aspect; but instead it will penetrate their personal, family, and political life.” The most important message the Pope will bring is reconciliation, Fr. Beramendi said. “Among the Latin American peoples, certain ideologies want to view the Church as a colonizing entity and they even set up 'government decolonization ministries', since there is the notion that historically they were plundered." The priest believes that the presence of Pope Francis, a fellow Latin American, “will have a reconciling effect in the historic, cultural, and religious areas.” Among the highlights of Pope Francis' time in Bolivia will be his visit to the maximum security prison at Palmasola, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where he will listen to the testimonies of several prisoners. “Everything the Pope does, he’s doing because he wants to imitate Christ. Jesus went where nobody wanted to go, and welcomed people nobody wanted to receive.” So “in the three countries he’ll be visiting the fringes of society, places of suffering like hospitals, orphanages, and in Bolivia he’ll go to that prison,” Fr. Beramendi explained. “One of the greatest problems at Palmasola is overcrowding,” he said, and also “a lot of prisoners live there with their families … there are situations of extreme material poverty and human suffering, where they lose their dignity and don’t have enough living space,” he stated. The Pope will bring with him a message of hope, Fr. Beramendi said, and he will say that “these people should be treated with a minimum of dignity, calling society’s attention to this reality they don’t want to see.” But also it’s a matter of “a challenge for those governing Bolivia, since the conditions in the prison demonstrate the fragility of the judicial system, of a mechanism that perhaps doesn’t work as it should … everybody knows there’s corruption within the prison and (some convicts) even direct their operations on the outside from there.” The priest said that when he heard the announcement that the Roman Pontiff would be visiting his county, “the first thing I did was to call to mind the time John Paul II came.” “At that time I was 14 years old and I had never thought of becoming a priest … the image of the Pope who was coming to visit us stood out in my mind, and I remember some of the messages and gatherings I participated in as a teenager back then.” “I’m convinced that Pope Francis’ visit will make its mark on the new generations, and I hope there will be an increase in vocations to the priestly and religious life coming from it, but above all, good Christians and good citizens.”
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