Pope Francis went after companies that discourage maternity at a Rome conference addressing Italy’s demographic winter.

“For the future to be good, it is therefore necessary to take care of families, especially young families, assailed by worries that risk paralyzing their life plans,” Francis said Friday, addressing the General States of Birth, an online event organized in Rome, bringing together politicians, CEO’s of some of Italy’s most important companies, activists, and sports and entertainment figures.

Among those attending the event organized by the Forum of Family Associations, were Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, and Rome’s Mayor, Virginia Raggi. When the pope entered the Auditorium of Rome, in Via della Conciliazione, the avenue that leads to St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis greeted them both, calling the first “courageous,” and praising the second for her “creativity.”

Giorgio di Paolo, president of the forum, was tasked with officially welcoming the pope, and during his remarks painted a grim image of what’s happening with Italy’s birthrates, the lowest one in Europe. He said that when he took office six years ago, he was “punched in the face” by the statistics that showed the birth rate and death rates in the country meant that a town of 2,000 people was disappearing each day, and since then, “it got worse and worse.”

“Demographic decline is an emergency not only in Italy but in Europe,” he said. “We talk a lot about sustainable development. But we must be clear: There will be no sustainable development, in Italy or in Europe, without intergenerational balance. Therefore, we must understand that demographic policies are not costs but investments.”

Francis wholeheartedly agreed with di Paolo, saying that sustainability, “a key word for building a better world,” cannot be used only to talk “about economic, technological and environmental sustainability.”

“We also need to talk about generational sustainability,” the pope said. “We will not be able to feed production and preserve the environment if we do not pay attention to families and children. Sustainable growth comes from here.”

The pope went on to note that the reconstruction after the wars that devastated Europe and the world would not have been possible had it not been for the “explosion of births” and the “ability to instill confidence and hope in the younger generations.”

“Today, too, we find ourselves in a situation of restart, as difficult as it is full of expectations: We cannot follow short-sighted models of growth, as if preparing for tomorrow required only a few hasty adjustments,” Francis said. “No, the dramatic birth rate figures and the frightening pandemic figures call for change and responsibility.”

In order for the future to be good, the pope argued, it’s necessary for families to be taken care of, not only with a welfare system that gives a “unique and universal” income to parents for each child, but also combating work uncertainty and the increasingly unaffordable costs of raising kids.

“These are fears that can swallow up the future, they are quicksand that can sink a society,” Francis said.

The pope then reflected “with sadness” on the women who are discouraged from having children by their employers, or who feel forced to hide their pregnancies from their superiors.

“How is it possible that a woman should feel ashamed for the most beautiful gift that life can offer?” Francis said, noting that it’s not the woman who should be ashamed in this situation, but society, because when it fails to welcome life, it stops living.

Francis also argued that even those who don’t believe in God can be inspired by the quote from the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“Where is our treasure, the treasure of our society? In the children or in the finances? What attracts us, family or turnover?” he asked.

Francis then spoke about the youth, saying that they want to be inspired in their schools, but also by the world of entertainment and sports, and it’s sad when the “models” only care about is appearances, and being beautiful, young and fit.

“Young people do not grow thanks to the fireworks of appearance, they mature if attracted by those who have the courage to pursue big dreams, to sacrifice themselves for others, to do good to the world in which we live,” he said. “And staying young doesn’t come from taking selfies and retouching, but from being able to look into the eyes of your children one day.”

“Sometimes, however, the message goes out that being fulfilled means making money and having success, while children seem almost like a distraction that should not hinder one’s personal aspirations,” the pope said. “This mentality is gangrene for society and makes the future unsustainable.”

During his remarks, the pope called for “far reaching, forward-looking” family policies, that are rooted in the long-term common good, saying that it’s urgent to offer young people guarantees of stable employment, safety and incentives not to leave their country. This, he said, is a task not only for politicians but also entrepreneurs and companies, called to not only produce profit but actually promote life by not exploiting people with unsustainable conditions and working hours, and distributing some of their revenues with their workers.

“What is needed is a culture that cultivates the chemistry of the whole, the beauty of giving, the value of sacrifice,” Francis said.