Pope Francis talks during a World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9, 2015.
Pope Francis talks during a World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9, 2015.

Pope Francis spoke out against corporate greed and apologized for colonialism in the Americas in a speech Thursday in a meeting of groups working for the unemployed, landless and impoverished.

In a speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Pope Francis asked, "Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farm workers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?"

Francis spoke of the "new colonialism" to his audience of grassroots organizers, saying it appears at times as the "anonymous influence" of corporations, loan agencies, some free trade measures, and austerity measures that impact the lives of the poor.

Pope Francis rides in his popemobile, right, as he
Pope Francis rides in his popemobile, right, as he greets people lining the road from El Alto to La Paz, upon his arrival to Bolivia, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

He also spoke of climate change, echoing his landmark encyclical published last month that connected climate change to human civilization.

The pope said corporate greed has imposed a mentality of "profit at any price" with no concern for destruction of nature.

'Sins were committed'

Francis spoke at a gathering of indigenous leaders in Bolivia in the presence of Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales, the climactic high of Francis' weeklong South American tour.

In the speech, Francis noted that Latin American church leaders in the past had acknowledged that “grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”

St. John Paul II, for his part, apologized to the continent's indigenous for the “pain and suffering” caused during the 500 years of the church's presence in the Americas during a 1992 visit to the Dominican Republic.

But Francis went further, and said he was doing so with “regret.”

“I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was St. John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said to applause from the crowd.

Pope Francis waves from his popemobile as he arriv
Pope Francis waves from his popemobile as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Christ the Redeemer square in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9, 2015.

Then deviating from his prepared script, he added: “I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross.

"There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples," he said.

Francis' apology was met with wild applause from the indigenous and other grass-roots groups gathered for a world summit of popular movements whose fight against injustice and social inequality has been championed by the pope.

'Accept the apologies'

“We accept the apologies. What more can we expect from a man like Pope Francis?” said Adolfo Chavez, a leader of a lowlands indigenous group. “It's time to turn the page and pitch in to start anew. We indigenous were never lesser beings.”

The apology was significant given the controversy that has erupted in the United States over Francis' planned canonization of the 18th-century Spanish priest Junipero Serra, who set up missions across California.

Native Americans contend Serra brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity, wiping out villages in the process, and have opposed his canonization.

The Vatican insists Serra defended natives from colonial abuses.

A relief sculpture depicts Father Junipero Serra w
A relief sculpture depicts Father Junipero Serra with Native Americans at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, California, May 5, 2015.

Francis' apology was also significant given the controversy that blew up the last time a pope visited the continent.

Benedict XVI drew heated criticism when, during a 2007 visit to Brazil, he defended the church's campaign to Christianize indigenous peoples. He said the Indians of Latin America had been “silently longing” to become Christians when Spanish and Portuguese conquerors violently took over their lands.

Amid an outcry from indigenous groups, Benedict subsequently acknowledged that “shadows accompanied the work of evangelizing” the continent and said European colonizers inflicted “sufferings and injustices” on indigenous populations. He didn't apologize, however.

'Important declaration'

The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said that Francis wrote the speech on his own and that the apology for the sins, offenses and crimes of the church was a “particularly important declaration.”

Morales said the visit of the Argentinean-born pope represents support for the "liberation" of the Bolivian people.

Relations between Bolivia's Catholic Church and the Bolivian government became strained after Morales, the country's first indigenous leader, first took office in 2006, but have improved since Francis's election in 2013. 

The pope later traveled into La Paz for talks with Morales and other political and civic leaders.

During the trip, Francis stopped his motorcade at the spot where the body of Jesuit Priest Luis Espinal was found in 1980 after he was arrested and tortured by Bolivian paramilitary squads. 

Among the items on the pope's agenda while in Bolivia is a trip to the notoriously violent Palmasola prison, where at least 30 inmates were killed in 2013 during gang fighting.

Some material for this report came from The Associated Press.

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