The Pope has praised the Co-operative Movement for its "evangelical ideals", which have made a valuable contribution to the community.
A congregation of over 3,000 co-operators from the Italian Confederation of Co-operatives (Confederazione Cooperative Italiane) and the Federation of Italian Co-operative Banks (Federazione Italiana delle Banche di Credito Cooperativo), gathered in the Vatican Basilica on Saturday 10th December for a service by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Following the mass, Pope Benedict XVI said: "Your worthy institutions have been present for a long time in Italian society and remain fully present. They carry within themselves evangelical ideals and vitality that make them still able to offer a valuable contribution to the community, both from the social point of view and in the field of evangelisation.
"In a season of great change, of persistent economic insecurity, problems in the world of work, the Church feels the duty to proclaim with renewed vigour the message of Christ, with the power of humanisation and full of hope for the future in it. And you, dear friends, you must be aware that the Catholic co-operatives have an important role to play in this field."
The Pope noted the importance of co-operation among Catholics in Italy, which became popular following an Open Letter issued by Pope Leo XIII's 120 years ago. The Rerum Novarum in 1891 set out the Church's response to the social conflict of the time and encouraged the promotion of co-operatives and mutuals, the development of social enterprises and many other works of public interest, characterised by forms of participation and self-management.
The Pope said: "This activity has always been aimed at the material support of the population, constant attention to the families, inspired by the Magisterium of the Church.
"What has prompted members to join in a co-operative-type organisation, often with the decisive contribution of the priests, was not only a requirement of an economic, but also the desire to live an experience of unity and solidarity, towards overcoming the economic differences and conflicts between different social groups."
Communities should make a commitment to the co-operative experience, according to the Pope. He added: "The Social Doctrine of the Church has always promoted between the person and the State the balance between protecting the rights of the individual and the promotion of the common good, in an effort to develop an economy local answer to the needs of the community.
"Similarly, even on an ethical level, it is characterised by a marked sensitivity of solidarity, while respecting the rightful autonomy of the individual. This sensitivity is important because it fosters the development of co-operative ties between reality and territory for a revival of the real economy, as the engine that has the authentic development of the human person and knows how to combine the results with a positive act more ethically."