Amid a spate of recent elections, including the European parliament, the UK, Iran and France, Pope Francis lamented the current state of democratic affairs throughout the world on Sunday, calling for fostering greater inclusion and a system in which no one is marginalized.

Speaking to participants in Italy’s 50th Catholic Social Week in Trieste, organized by the Italian Bishops’ Conference and dedicated to promoting the church’s social agenda, the pope said July 7, “It is evident that in the world today, democracy, let’s tell the truth, does not enjoy good health.”

This malady, he said, is based on a definition of democracy given by Blessed Giuseppe Toniolo, a renowned Italian economist and sociologist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who defined democracy as “that civil order in which all social, juridical and economic forces, in the fullness of their hierarchal development, cooperate properly for the common good, flowing into the final result to the prevalent advantage of the lower classes.”

The declining state of democracy, the pope said, is concerning for the world, because the good of humanity is at risk.

“Everyone must feel part of a community project; no one must feel useless,” he said, stressing the need to give special attention to the poor and marginalized.

“Certain forms of welfare that do not recognize the dignity of the person” are not acceptable, he said, saying the disregard for human dignity “is the enemy of democracy, is the enemy of love of neighbor.”

“Certain forms of welfare that do not recognize the dignity of people are social hypocrisy. Let’s not forget this. And what is behind this distancing form social reality? There is indifference, and indifference is a cancer of democracy, a non-participation,” he said.

He spoke at the closing session of the July 3-7 event, which was opened by Italian President Sergio Mattarella and which drew a slew of other high-profile civil and ecclesial authorities, including Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference.

Pope Francis speaks at the Generali Convention Center in Trieste, Italy, for an event during Italian Catholic Social Week on July 7, 2024. Also in the photo are Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, left, and Archbishop Luigi Renna of Catania, Italy, right. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

After arriving in Trieste, the pope met with some 1,200 delegates from dioceses and associations across Italy at the close of the Catholic Social Week, Pope Francis reflected on the theme of the event, “At the heart of democracy: Participating between history and future.”

He compared the current crisis in democracy to “a wounded heart,” describing it as a “heart attack” in which “we must also worry about the different forms of social exclusion.”

“Every time someone is marginalized, the whole social body suffers,” he said, and lamented the prevalence of what he has often referred to as a culture of waste, which he said does not allow space for the poor, the unborn, sick and fragile people, the elderly, or children.

In this system, “power becomes self-referential – this is a terrible illness – incapable of listening and serving the people,” he said.

Quoting former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was abducted and killed by leftist terrorists in 1978, the pope said, “A state is not truly a democracy if it is not at the service of man, if it does not have as its supreme goal the dignity, freedom and autonomy of the human person, if it does not respect those social formations in which the human person freely develops and in which he integrates his own personality.”

Democracy is more than a vote, but voting is important, Pope Francis said, and voiced concern about the falling number of citizens who choose to cast a vote in elections.

Ironically, the pope’s comments came the same day that France held a runoff election with near-record levels of voter turnout, at around 60 percent.

Pope Francis insisted that conditions must be created in which everyone can participate, saying this participation must be facilitated in young people, “also in the critical sense in regards to ideological and populistic temptations.”

He touted the role that Christians can play in promoting European cultural and social development through dialogue with civil and political institutions, but cautioned against falling into various forms of ideology.

“Enlightening each other and freeing ourselves from the dross of ideology, we can start a common reflection especially on issues related to human life and the dignity of the person,” he said, saying, “Ideologies are seductive…they seduce, but they lead you to deny yourself.”

Visitors greet Pope Francis as he arrives for Mass in Unity of Italy Square in Trieste, Italy, July 7, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis stressed the importance of participation in a healthy democracy, saying, “In social life it is so necessary to heal hearts…And for this it is necessary to exercise creativity.”

He pointed to various areas where he said the action of the Holy Spirit can be seen in democratic societies, and urged attendees to reflect on moments in which space is made for the inclusion of people with disabilities, when local leaders promote natality, work opportunities, education, accessible housing and the integration of migrants and refugees.

“The heart of politics is to participate. And these are the things that participation does, a taking care of the whole; not just charity…no, the whole!” he said, saying it requires courage “to think of ourselves as a people and not as my clan.”

Attention to the people is “not populism,” but is something different, he said, and urged attendees not to be satisfied with easy solutions to societal problems.

“It is our duty not to manipulate the word democracy nor to deform it with titles, empty titles, capable of justifying any action. Democracy is not an empty box, but is tied to the values of the person, of fraternity, and also of integral ecology,” he said.

Catholics have a key role to play in facilitating an active participation and fostering inclusion, he said, saying, “We must be a voice, a voice that denounces and proposes in a society that is often voiceless and where too many have no voice.”

This, he said, is “a form of charity that allows politics to live up to its responsibilities and to escape from polarizations, these polarizations that impoverish and do not help to understand and face challenges.”

Everyone is called to this political charity, he said, and encouraged more people to get involved, including young people, in organizing projects and promoting various initiatives.

Pope Francis after delivering his speech met briefly with various ecumenical representatives and with some academics, as well as with a handful of migrants, refugees, and disabled individuals prior to celebrating a public Mass formally closing the Catholic Social Week.

During the Mass, attended by nearly 100 bishops, some 260 priests and roughly 8,500 people from Italy and surrounding countries, the pope noted that Jesus in the day’s Gospel reading said no prophet is welcome in their own land, and that when speaking to his own community, he “was a cause of scandal to them.”

He focused on the word scandal, saying the scandal of Jesus was that he was not a powerful God who satisfied every desire, but was a humble and apparently weak God who died a painful death, and who demands that his followers overcome selfishness.

Jesus represents an “uncomfortable” God, he said, saying that in the face of the many political and social challenges of modern society, “what we need today is precisely this: the scandal of faith.”

“Not a religiosity closed in on itself, that looks up to heaven without caring about what happens on earth and celebrates liturgies in the temple but forgets the dust blowing in our streets. Instead, we need the scandal of faith, a faith rooted in the God who became man and, therefore, a human faith…that touches people’s lives, that heals broken hearts, that becomes a leaven of hope and a seed of a new world.”

This faith, he said, is not afraid to touch society’s wounds and is capable of overcoming mediocrity, therefore becoming “a thorn in the flesh of a society often anesthetized and dazed by consumerism.”

“It is, above all, a faith that disrupts the calculations of human selfishness, that denounces evil, that points out injustices, that disturbs the schemes of those who, in the shadow of power, play with the lives of the weak,” he said.

Francis urged Christians to be scandalized by the plight of the poor, migrants and prisoners, as well as various societal injustices.

People were scandalized by Jesus’s contact with human fragility and woundedness, and he was condemned for it, yet he remained steadfast in his commitment to conveying God’s love and compassion, he said.

“So, too, we Christians are called to be prophets and witnesses of the Kingdom of God, in all the situations we live in, in every place we inhabit,” he said.

About 8,500 people gather for Mass with Pope Francis in Unity of Italy Square in Trieste, Italy, July 7, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Calling the city of Trieste, located on the Italian border with Slovenia and which was briefly an Anglo-American protectorate after World War II, a “crossroads of peoples and cultures,” he encouraged locals to dream “of a new civilization founded on peace and fraternity.”

“Let us not be scandalized by Jesus but, on the contrary, let us be indignant at all those situations where life is degraded, wounded, and killed; let us bring the prophecy of the Gospel into our flesh, with our choices even before our words,” he said.

After Mass, Pope Francis delivered his traditional noontime Angelus address and thanked organizers for arranging the Catholic Social Week.

He challenged locals in Trieste and the surrounding are to “combine openness and stability, welcome and identity,” saying, “you have what it takes.”

“As Christians we have the Gospel, which gives meaning and hope to our lives; and as citizens you have the Constitution, a reliable compass for the path of democracy,” he said.

Francis closed telling attendees to go forward “Without fear, open and firm in human and Christian values, welcoming but without compromising human dignity.”

“This is not something to be played with,” he said, and prayed for countries experiencing war, including Ukraine, Palestine, Israel, Myanmar, and Sudan.