“How I long for a poor Church for the poor!”
With these words spoken after being elected pope, Jorge Bergoglio underscored a theme that continues to be front-and-center of his papacy. Not surprisingly, many have concluded such statements demonstrate that Pope Francis wants Catholics to devote greater attention to poverty-alleviation. In one sense, this is true. Yet it’s also an interpretation that misses the deeper meaning Francis attaches to poverty.
No-one should be surprised Francis is so vocal about material poverty. After all, he comes from Latin America: a part of the world in which millions (with notable exceptions such as Chile) seem locked into dire poverty. You would have to be less-than-human not to be disturbed by the contrast between Buenos Aires’s beautiful Recoleta district which gives the city the appellation “Paris of the South,” and the misery of a Buenos Aires slum like Villa Rodrigo Bueno.
For Christians, indifference in the face of such disparities is not optional. But in understanding Francis’s words about poverty, we should remember the pope is an orthodox Catholic. He’s not a philosophical or practical materialist. Hence Francis’s conception of poverty and the poor goes far beyond conventional secular understandings of these subjects.
In a revealing question-and-answer session held on Pentecost eve with members of the new movements that have brought such life to the Church since Vatican II, the pope said this about Christianity and poverty.
For us Christians, poverty is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category. No, it is a theological category. I would say, perhaps the first category, because God, the Son of God, abased Himself, made Himself poor to walk with us on the road. And this is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that the Son of God brought us with His Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by going to the flesh of Christ. If we go to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty is, the poverty of the Lord.
In a word, it’s about humility. As another old-school Jesuit Philip Caraman once wrote, humility is the “virtue by which we take true measure of ourselves before God, bearing in mind all that God has given us and done for us and expects from us.”
Further illumination comes from recalling that the Greek word used in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3) to describe the “poor in spirit” (πτωχός) means being reduced to a beggar. Hence the poor in spirit are those of us—poor, wealthy, middle-class—who recognize our sins and beg Christ to save us.
This is central to what it means to be a poor church. A humble church isn’t a timid, handwringing congregation that compromises the Faith. Rather it’s a church that consists of people who freely submit to Christ as the only One who can save us.
Similar insights emerge from reflection upon the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Here it’s worth noting the gaps between the romantic myths about Francis and the reality of the man.
In his superb recent biography of the saint, for example, Augustine Thompson OP observes that Francis’s famous conversation with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt wasn’t motivated by something like anti-war activism. For Francis, the purpose of the exercise was to convert the Sultan to Christianity!
Likewise Thompson demonstrates Francis’s impatience with liturgical sloppiness, his “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms,” his capacity to distinguish between absolute and relative poverty, the absence of any “hint of pantheism” in his view of nature, and that “the last thing Francis wanted was for his order to become a group of social workers.” Saint Francis, Thompson adds, was “fiercely orthodox” and that “for Francis, obedience to God and the Church, by which he meant the hierarchy, was absolute.” In his final Testament, Francis even insisted that any heretics found among his followers should be handed over to the appropriate authorities for punishment.
All of this makes it hard to view Saint Francis as a proto-dissenter, medieval hipster, or eco-feminist. Some Catholics are also surprised to learn that Francis’s own understanding of poverty had nothing to do with class-warfare or envy of those with material wealth. Thompson notes that the saint wrote relatively little about poverty, and when he did, it was generally “not linked to giving up property, simplicity of life, or living only for the day.” Rather it was primarily with reference to the fact that the Second Person of the Trinity humbled Himself by taking on human form in the Incarnation and sacrificed Himself for mankind by dying on the Cross.
Thus, as Thompson presents it, Saint Francis’s conception of poverty was overwhelmingly about “renunciation of one’s own will,” service of God, and obedience to the Gospel proclaimed by Christ’s Church. In that sense, Francis’s ideas about poverty, Thompson notes elsewhere, “are not political.” They are essentially about attaining the spiritual wealth found in embracing Christ.
So what does all this tell us about how Catholics should think about poverty?
In the first place, it’s clear political activism shouldn’t be what first leaps to mind when considering poverty-alleviation. It is not coincidental that Pope Francis insisted in his Pentecost Vigil remarks that “The Church is not a political movement, or a well-organized structure . . . We’re not an NGO, and when the Church becomes an NGO she loses salt, has no flavor, is only an empty organization.”
Certainly Francis’s calls for more state intervention vis-à-vis the global financial crisis underscore his conviction that there is a political dimension to reducing material poverty. Yet his pre-pontifical writings indicate that Francis isn’t naïve about this. Back in 2001 (the year Argentina’s economy more-or-less collapsed), Bergoglio wrote in a small publication entitled Hambre y sed de justicia, that: “There are Argentines facing poverty and exclusion, and who we must treat as subjects and actors of their own destiny, and not as patronized recipients of welfare doled out by the State or civil society.”
But above all, Francis wants Catholics to bring a distinctly Christian dimension to poverty issues. In his Pentecost Vigil remarks, he stressed that our primary concern cannot be effectiveness and efficiency. “It is one thing to preach Jesus,” Francis told his listeners, “and another to be efficient.”
Obviously Christians are not excused from thinking (rather than simply emoting) about and debating the “hows” of poverty-alleviation and working to reduce it. There are requirements of justice. Francis’s point, however, is that if we only consider what he calls “worldly effectiveness,” we risk forgetting Christian love.
In developing this argument, Francis posed two questions to his audience: “Tell me, when you give alms do you look into the eyes of the man or woman to whom you give alms? . . . And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the one to whom you give alms, or do you toss the coin?”
Three things—as Francis often says!—come to mind here. One is how many times we have all failed this test.
The second is Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. There was nothing “efficient” about her decision to care for some of the world’s most destitute people. During her lifetime, she was criticized for not being more politically-active with regard to poverty-alleviation. But her work wasn’t about politics. It was about something that dwarfs politics: the bringing of Christ’s love to those in whom Christ Himself told us we would see His face.
And herein lies the third point, which Benedict XVI dwelt on in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Though this encyclical emphasized the demands of justice, Benedict stressed there is something of which every suffering person has even greater need: “loving personal concern.”
For Pope Francis, his predecessor, and Blessed Theresa, our response to poverty must above all be one that makes real the mercy that’s central to the Gospel. Among other things, this helps correct the very human tendency to imagine that justice is enough. A God who was simply Justice rather than Love would never have condescended to enter human history in the Person of Jesus Christ to rescue us from ourselves. God owed us nothing. In that sense, the Catholic understanding of poverty reminds us that it’s divine mercy rather than justice that truly saves us.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “St. Francis Marrying Poverty” painted by Andrea Sacchi in 1633.