So, the Church of the poor…

There is a grassroots movement afoot to check Pope Francis’ command that the Church be poor and for the poor, and it’s starting near the top. First, a German bishop is taken down for spending lavishly on a retirement home. Now the Atlanta archbishop feels heat for an expensive home. I don’t know about your local paper, but I suspect many have done as mine and asked the local bishop the question of how much his pad costs.

So what did Francis say in his apostolic exhortation about the poor?

In paragraph 48, the Pope asks of the Church as it “takes up this missionary impulse,” “to whom should she go first?…above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, ‘those who cannot repay you…there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.”

In perhaps his most visceral statement, Francis says “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own scrutiny.” (49)

In a positive statement on the progress of society, he reminds us of the reality of global poverty. “We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences” (52).

Over the last several popes, the concept of the “preferential option for the poor” is a consistent theme that Francis ceases on in paragraph 198: “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy” [quoting John Paul II]. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians…Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.”…This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”

A Church that is poor and for the poor may be the statement that defines Francis’ papacy. It has certainly shaped the narrative of its first year. Applying that concept to real life draws on another concept that John Paul II once leaned heavily upon, the principle of solidarity. In 169ff, Francis gets at the principle with another turn of phrase, praising the “art of accompaniment.” “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” He goes on “Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the are of listening, which is more than simply hearing.” (171). “One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.” (172) “Jesus…hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (270)

We tend to think of poverty in terms of a lack of things, an inefficiency in society that is addressed structurally. Solidarity counters that with the understanding that we are called as Christians to accompany, to walk personally with, the poor. Without the latter, I doubt we will ever have the will to tackle the former. Francis posits the duality like this: “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” Solidarity is not generosity toward the other. “It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.” (173) ”

Francis’ stance towards poverty calls into question some basic tenets of Western life. “We must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. It must be reiterated that ‘the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.’ To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in solidarity which ‘would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny’, since ‘every person is called to self-fulfillment,’.” (190) The quotes there are all Paul VI, perhaps the pope most critical of capitalism.

What does Francis want for the poor? Not just food. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity’. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.” (192)

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