“You transform the deserts into forests, the deserts into living forests,” said Pope Francis, putting aside his prepared speech for the occasion, arousing enthusiasm and emotion in the thousands of people who watched the Holy Father’s car driving into the “Earth Village” for a surprise visit on a Sunday afternoon, April 24th. The event was organized by the Focolare Movement in Rome at the green center of the capital: the Villa Borghese Racing Track.

Showing up unexpectedly, the Pope was fondly greeted by families, young people and other people of all ages who had been taking part in the events at the “Village,” where the focus was on themes like Earth, Legality, Inter-Religious Dialogue and Solidarity.

Donato Falmi and Antonia Testa, who are responsible for the Focolare Movement in Rome, and Pierluigi Sassi, President of Earth Day Italy, welcomed the Holy Father up on stage at the “Village” and described the spirit of the event. Falmi introduced the Pope into the experience of Mariapolis 2016, which was entitled “Living Together in the City,” with special emphasis on three main words often repeated by Francis and chosen as the inspiration for the event: “mercy,” “tenderness” and “diversity as an enrichment.”

Antonia Testa described the collaboration between the Focolare Movement and Earth Day Italy, and explained how the Mariapolis wished to turn its gaze on the city of Rome, on its poverty—but on the “great good” that is quietly but incisively being carried out every day across the social fabric.

President of Earth Day Italy Pierluigi Sassi then explained to Pope Francis how the path to this “Village” began from the encyclical Laudato Si’ and the “March for the Earth” event, which Earth Day Italy had organized and where it had involved 130 organizations in view of the COP21 climate agreement.

Pope Francis listened to the intense experiences of several Mariapolis participants: some of them heartwrenching testimonies of solidarity within the criminal justice system and with immigrants; projects by young people promoting disarmament; legality and the campaign against gambling.

Pierluigi Sassi concluded by stressing the significance of the football match played last April 25 at the “Village” between the Liberi Nantes—the football team comprised entirely of asylum seekers and political refugees—and the students of the prestigious Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli (LUISS) in Rome.

“Don’t be afraid of conflict that contains within it both risk and opportunity,” Francis said. “Knowledge is a risk for me and for the person I draw near to. But never, never turn away so that you won’t have to see. Draw close to others, take their hand, go to dry their many tears… this is how a smile can be born in the desert… I’ll give you an assignment to do at home,” the Pope concluded. “When you go down the street, you see that tenderness is missing.

Each person is enclosed in himself and herself. Friendship is lacking. Money is at the center of today’s world, but ‘gratuity’ is the keyword so that this desert can become a forest. How do you do that? Always have within us an awareness of our own need to be forgiven…. Working together, respecting each other—this is how the miracle happens in the desert that then becomes a forest. Thank you for all that you do.”

Before the final goodbye, a boy gave Francis the “Earth Cube,” an educational toy used for teaching children the principles in safeguarding Creation.

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