By Barbara J. Fraser
ASUNCION, Paraguay — They drew icons, doves and portraits of the pope. One 11-year-old asked the pope to pray for his 7-month-old sister who has a heart murmur. A 9-year-old asked for his mother to get out of prison.
One asked for an end to violence against children. Several wrote entirely in Guarani. One began, “Hi pope! How are you? I’m fine.” Another asked, “What’s the Vatican like?” A few asked for prayers so they could be promoted to the next grade.
Most addressed Pope Francis as “tu,” the familiar form of “you” used with relatives and friends. There was a sprinkling of hearts and smiley faces.
The letters were written by 2,500 children from low-income neighborhoods in six parishes along the bank of the Paraguay River, one of which Pope Francis visited June 12.
The project was coordinated by schools in the neighborhoods, which flood every year when the river rises, and where residents are being threatened with eviction to make way for shopping centers and luxury high rises.
Dozens of the letters and drawings, reproduced on huge panels beside the chapel that the pope visited, open a window into a world in which children sometimes have grown-up concerns.
Several children told of the flooding that destroyed their houses and forced them to take refuge in shelters or move repeatedly. One drew the scene, showing a child, a few household goods and a bony dog on the only patch of high ground as floodwaters swamped nearby houses.
“I will ask you a question. Why do street children suffer if God helps and loves everyone? I hope you understand,” one wrote.
“I want the president to pay attention to our problems or for him to be replaced by another,” said another.
In a neighborhood where many people eke a living out of collecting and selling recyclable materials, one young artist showed how a bottle could be turned into a pencil holder, a piece of cardboard into a painting and a tin can into a cup.
A first grader drew a picture of his school and asked that it not be closed. Another child asked the pope “to do me a nice favor, that my mother and father get back to normal and we can be together and happy again.”
Drugs and crime got frequent mention. Some said they hoped their parents could find steady work.
Others were less serious, but no less urgent.
“I ask if you can give me an opportunity to become a singer,” one wrote, adding, “because God says the kingdom of heaven is for the children.”
“Pray for me when I go play soccer,” said another.
“I want to tell you that I know the Our Father in Guarani,” wrote one child to the pope, who recited the prayer in that language during Mass on July 11.
Nearly all said they were looking forward to the pope’s visit, thanked him for coming and asked him to bless their families and their country.
And at least one took up a political topic that the pope has mentioned in several speeches.
“I ask you to touch the hearts of corrupt government officials,” the child wrote. “Tell God to forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”