“The Poor” according to Francis

Much has been said by Pope Francis around the world, from secular media all the way to the inner workings of the Church. Lately, he was featured on the “Rolling Stone” magazine cover, accompanied by Bob Dylan lyrics “The Times they are a-changin”. As a friend of mine from the Vatican commented, this is probably the first and only celibate person to ever be granted the honor.

In what concerns the environment much has been said about Francis too (here, here and here for example), but his central theme seems to be poverty and mercy. Within the concept of poverty, there are important connections to the environment, especially on the oft repeated critique of the “culture of waste”, as well as the calling to reach the peripheries (in the theology of reconciliation the environment can be considered as peripheral) and of course even the Franciscan connection between poverty and love of nature.

Recently, Pope Francis has delivered messages that help us understand exactly what he, following the teachings of Jesus, understands poverty. There is clearly a material dimension to poverty,  but it is much more than that within a Christian understanding of the term. Below a few key statements:

1. Catechesis on Evangelization, June 18: I posted about this passage before here, where the Pope explained what he means by poor and a preferred term oh his: “existential peripheries”. The poor certainly include the materially poor, but also the materially rich who are spiritually poor:

“The Gospel is for all! Going out toward the poor doesn’t mean that we must become paupers or some sort of ‘spiritual bums’! No, that’s not what it means! It means that we must go towards the flesh of the suffering Jesus but Jesus’ flesh also suffers in those who don’t know it, with their studies, their intelligence, their culture. We must go there! That’s why I like to use the expression ‘go to the outskirts’, the existential peripheries. Everyone, all of them, [who suffer] from physical and real poverty to intellectual poverty, which is also real. All the outskirts, all the intersections of paths: go there. And there sow the seed of the Gospel by word and by witness.”

2. Message for Lent 2014: Here the Pope shows how Jesus lived and understood poverty, and the difference between destitution and poverty. The greatest destitution is to be without faith, hope and love – without God:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor8:9). The Apostle was writing to the Christians of Corinth… What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today? First of all, it shows us how God works. He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor …”. Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things (cf. Phil2:7; Heb 4:15)… It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. 

In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual.Material destitution is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ. Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.

No less a concern is moral destitution, which consists in slavery to vice and sin. How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide. This type of destitution, which also causes financial ruin, is invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us.

The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution: wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness….

Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ…. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.

On the point of spiritual destitution we also are reminded of Card. Ratzingers words about evangelization and poverty on a message to catechists:

Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.

The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.

This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science—this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life—he who is the Gospel personified.

3. Message for the 29th World Youth Day 2014: In this message the Pope reflected on the beatitudes (Mt 5), especially “Blessed be the poor in spirit…”, and defines “poor in spirit” in the same way, as a voluntary divesting of glory, of giving to others, quoting Philippians 2,7 again. He also offers 3 concrete ways of making this spirit of poverty a way of life: being free from material wealth, seeing the poor differently and lastly, which I will quote in full, learning from the poor. Finally, the important relationship between evangelization and poverty, and it’s fruit: joy.

Here we see God’s choice to be poor: he was rich and yet he became poor in order to enrich us through his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). This is the mystery we contemplate in the crib when we see the Son of God lying in a manger, and later on the cross, where his self-emptying reaches its culmination. The Greek adjective ptochós (poor) does not have a purely material meaning. It means “a beggar”, and it should be seen as linked to the Jewish notion of the anawim, “God’s poor”. It suggests lowliness, a sense of one’s limitations and existential poverty. The anawim trust in the Lord, and they know that they can count on him.

However – and this is my third point – the poor are not just people to whom we can give something. They have much to offer us and to teach us. How much we have to learn from the wisdom of the poor! Think about it: several hundred years ago a saint, Benedict Joseph Labré, who lived on the streets of Rome from the alms he received, became a spiritual guide to all sorts of people, including nobles and prelates. In a very real way, the poor are our teachers. They show us that people’s value is not measured by their possessions or how much money they have in the bank. A poor person, a person lacking material possessions, always maintains his or her dignity. The poor can teach us much about humility and trust in God… 

There is a close connection between poverty and evangelization… The Lord wants a poor Church which evangelizes the poor. When Jesus sent the Twelve out on mission, he said to them: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourers deserve their food” (Mt 10:9-10). Evangelical poverty is a basic condition for spreading the kingdom of God. The most beautiful and spontaneous expressions of joy which I have seen during my life were by poor people who had little to hold onto. Evangelization in our time will only take place as the result of contagious joy.

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