On Saturday, a day before he started his annual retreat, the Holy Father received the members of the Panamanian bishops´ conference, in Rome for their every-five-year "ad limina" visit. The Pope referred to the "great tradition" of the Church in that country, "of assistance to the needy, defense of ethnic minorities, human development and fostering of education."
"I wish to encourage you to continue on this path, more than that, to promote charity with greater creativity and a new imagination, in order to respond to the magnitude of some phenomena of social and cultural marginalization, as well as to the new forms of poverty, both material and spiritual, that are emerging at the beginning of the new millennium," the Holy Father said.
About 86% of Panama´s 2.8 million inhabitants are baptized Catholics. The country has one priest for every 7,582 people, according to 1998 Church statistics.
Panama suffers from acute sectoral economic imbalance, with 74% of the economy dependent on services. Per capita gross domestic product amounted to $7,600 in 1999, and the unemployment rate was 13.1% in 1997, the most recent figure available.
The Holy Father said that, given this situation and the poor distribution of wealth, "it is important to maintain a prophetic voice in face of the perpetuation of discriminatory situations, even when these do not seem to cause social destabilization."
He continued: "The Church, which makes efforts to promote the integral good of each person, and, therefore, of his/her social and communal dimension, is not content with the attainment of simple well-being or a comfortable life. It must make efforts to promote the real dignity of the person, which implies, on one hand, respect for fundamental human rights and, on the other, a sense of responsibility, solidarity and cooperation to construct a better world for all."
"This is the specific mission of the lay faithful, who must be given special pastoral attention, so that they will have a robust Christian formation, and great strength of spirit in their social commitment," he added.