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Pope Francis' unfinished business with the poor


Pope Francis' desire that the Church should be a church of the poor and for the poor has struck a chord. As did his simple way of living and his evocation of Francis of Assisi when choosing to be called Pope Francis. But his emphasis on the service of the poor will put on the agenda unfinished business from the 1960s–80s.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the poor was explored most seriously in Latin America. I caught its dimensions most vividly in a dawn trip on a clapped out US school bus to a small regional town in El Salvador.

The church stood in the town square, flanked by the Town Hall, the police station and the court house. It was one of the pillars of a society, identified with those with a little money and power, not with the poor subsistence farmers and unemployed, and still less with the displaced community to which I was heading.

On the bus I chatted to an Evangelical pastor. He was dressed and spoke like a campesino, carried his Bible with him, and used to gather people in the shanties on the edge of town. That seemed to be the church of the poor.

That was also the Catholic challenge. If the Catholic Church was to be the church of the poor as the recent Vatican Council had asked, it needed to be where they were, to ask why they were poor, and to allow them to see that the Gospel was good news for the poor. So priests and catechists moved out into the poor barrios, spoke of a God who took each human being seriously, of Jesus as their brother, and invited them to reflect on how the Gospel spoke to their situation.

The poor organised. They were seen as a threat to the wealth of those who profited from their misery. They, their catechists and priests were killed; armed resistance began and led to a civil war in which Catholics were pitted against Catholics. 

This reality underlay the different strands of reflection commonly summed up as liberation theology. With its condemnation by the Vatican, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the impact of globalisation on Latin America, the church of the poor became largely a trope of church rhetoric.

The poor were spiritualised or identified with those who lacked meaning in their lives. That left untouched the real poor of Latin America, who increasingly turned to Evangelical Christianity. 

When Pope Francis speaks of the church of the poor he certainly has in mind the real poor of the barrios in which he grew up and their fellows elsewhere. He wants them to be at the centre of the Catholic Church and not at its periphery, and insists that their service and the defence of their human dignity in the face of economic and cultural oppression is a central part of the mission of the church. It flows from the Gospel.

Australian Catholics will ask themselves what it might mean in concrete terms for the Catholic Church here to be a church of the poor and for the poor.

Places where it might pitch its tent are pretty evident. Among the poorest people in Australia at present are asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the young unemployed, particularly in rural areas.

The difficulties of being a church in which these groups are at the centre are also pretty evident. It would involve presence, accompaniment, priority in human and financial resources, advocacy. Catholic congregations would be small, but eventually people of different faiths and none would find in the church a home.

In the 1960s there was much fairly unhelpful discussion among Catholics about how they could join the poor. They only slowly recognised the paradox that a church can come to be the church of the poor only through the commitment of powerful and resourceful people who are not poor.

The Catholic Church can draw on a long history of giving generously of its human and financial resources to those who are poor, both at home and overseas, through schools, health care and pastoral visiting.

Its institutions now do not serve the poor as directly as they did a century ago. But if they made available their resources to poor communities elsewhere in Australia in order to empower them to educate and care for the health of their members, the exchange of friendship, experience and wisdom involved would gradually ensure that the centre of the institutions and the Church lay outside themselves.

To be a church for the poor is not in the first instance about doing things for the poor. Pope Francis himself warned against the Church being simply a compassionate NGO. It means being inspired by faith to listen to the poor and to help their voice be heard. It also entails accompanying and serving them and calling governments to account when their dignity is trodden on. 

In being a church for the poor and of the poor, the Catholic Church has a great resource in symbols. In fact its natural alphabet is symbols, and its most powerful action is also often symbolic.

We need to think only of the encouragement that the new pope has brought and the possibilities he has opened by the publicity given to his movement from palace to apartment, from limo to bus, from baroque to simple dress, and by the report of his washing the feet of women suffering from HIV.

These kinds of symbols can also embody the commitment to be a church of and for the poor. If gestures that privilege simplicity, going outside the boundaries, and solidarity with the neglected poor in Australia took hold in the ordinary life of Catholics and in the ceremonial life of their church, that would be a significant step. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Church of the poor



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Existing comments

Thank you for your words, Andrew, but you know what? In the wake of Francis, I'm already getting tired seeing this term "the poor" being constantly over-used like a hackneyed Victorian cliche when discussing economic struggle and the culture of poverty. One can easily come across as condescending, as preaching from one's culturally superior perch about a different class altogether. Already "underclass" is used in the US media to refer to impoverished blacks and Latinos.

DavidSt | 20 March 2013  

Methinks Father Hamilton needs to acknowledge missionaries worldwide working among the poor and embodying the ideals mentioned, and not merely mother Theresa's sisters in Mumbai. You fail abysmally to mention the prayers of enclosed sisters for poor [so esteemed by pope Francis] They are not in destitution, but their prayers are democratically for all[rich and poor]. "[Letter of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the Carmelite Nuns of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires (June 22, 2010)] Dear Sisters, I write this letter to each one of you in the four Monasteries of Buenos Aires. The Argentine people must face, in the next few weeks, a situation whose result may gravely harm the family. It is the bill on matrimony of persons of the same sex" their prayers are democratic for all people[though they live in monasteries and not in barrios. [Ever heard of St Vincent De Paul Society Fr H? Yes even I in clericals had parish mission in aboriginal lean tos in Walcha, sat in aboriginal grog circle on an abandoned property in Swan Hill Victoria [though abstained from metho bottles] visited aboriginal camps with mother theresa's nuns in Tennant Creek[you too facilely generalise.]

Father John George | 20 March 2013  

Thank you Andrew Hamilton for asking us to look at what it means to be a church of and for the poor. Who does the church share a life and values with, either implicitly or explicitly - is it with the poor (in Canada aboriginal people, unemployed youth and adults and refugees) or is it with the institutions of power?

Marianne McLean | 21 March 2013  

Thank you for yet another good article, Andrew. When you listed the poorest groups in Australia, you omitted parents bringing up children on their own. I understand many studies have shown that they are among the most disadvantaged in our society. Since the Government recently moved to make their position even worse, perhaps the Church could 'pitch its tent' there too.

John Regan | 21 March 2013  

"They only slowly recognised the paradox that a church can come to be the church of the poor only through the commitment of powerful and resourceful people who are not poor." In Australia, many wealthy people who are not necessarily 'religious' are very generous with their money and time in helping those less fortunate. Much more could be done, of course. And let's not forget Mr & Mrs Average, attending church (perhaps), who also give of their money and time. We have a family (husband, wife, three children) in our church who have been training for missionary work - it's taken three years of study, another year of discernment and training and now they are going to Tanzania in July. Our church remains in partnership with them, providing prayer, financial help and, most importantly, our friendship.

Pam | 21 March 2013  

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this pope leads a church which is all inclusive (perhaps even universal), as Christ intended, rather than one which has "preferential" options for any one group in human society. Such preferential treatment always leads to abuse by some of those who benefit from the preference and to disillusionment in those who do not belong to the preferred group. (Witness in this country the abuse of genuinely well-intended social services and the vehemence in those who fund these services towards the very existence of those services). At the height of the liberation theology explosion in South America, the Chilean cardinal Da Silva sold all of the treasures and trappings of "carnival" in the Catholic Church and distributed the proceeds to the poor. The party lasted a couple of weeks fueled by tequila and benefitted no-one, church or poor. Let us hope we don't see this sort of over-reaction to this Pope's obvious good intentions. Somehow, I think he is too smart to reduce his committmittment to the inanity of the Chilean Cardinal. Let us also hope that the South American Jesuits don't revert to running around the place armed with automatic weapons shooting up the authorities in union with the politically active protest groups as some did at the height of the liberation theology experiment, which brought bugger all to the poor of South America.

john frawley | 21 March 2013  

When I found out that the new pope was a Jesuit, I had very grave reservations. I simply don't understand what you guys are saying. I admit the fault is probably mine. Maybe I needed a Catholic education to decode "Catholic speak". Or Maybe I am usually eavesdropping on a conversation between jesuits, bishops, politicians, lawyers,lobbyists and intellectuals. But with the Pope, here we have a Jesuit who catches the bus not one who drives his Lexus to Boston College each day. We have one who washes feet and kisses the poor. He does not tell me who my poor are or should be. He does not hide behind glass and does not seem to fear the crowd or the bullet. To say these things are "symbolic" strips them of their real power. He makes real connections and relationships with real people. He seems to dives into life the way the Son of Man did. My wife recently started working as a speech pathologist in a local aboriginal community and can see herself doing so much good with them. Real, concrete stuff. Maybe what she is doing and what Jesuits talk about is all part of the same thing. I don't know. Hopefully Pope Francis will be able to clarify the link for me.

Stephen | 21 March 2013  

I would never deny myriad ways in which the Australian church is involved with 'the poor'. However, I think what Fr Hamilton is suggesting is very different from what now exists. Our tent isn't pitched among the poor. We reach out to them, often in their physical space, as Fr. George describes, but we're not pitched among them. The average Catholic parish doesn't see involvement with the poor as constitutive of its Catholic life (and yes, I am aware of wonderful exceptions to this). Individual Catholics are often heroically involved with their poor brothers and sisters, but as a whole Church community we seem to have trouble centring on them, unless we widen the definition of 'poor' until it's almost meaningless. Perhaps, indeed, it's impossible, but I'd like us to try......!

Joan Seymour | 21 March 2013  

If by moving "from baroque to simple dress" Fr H is referring to liturgical vestments, then this would be a big mistake. Such a move would not indicate a concern for the poor, but a careless disregard for the value of protocol and traditional symbols which not even Popes can dispense with with impunity. With great efforts, the humble and poor-esteeming Pope Benedict managed to move the Church on from the liturgical Jacobinism of clowns and clay pots that has propagated so disastrously in the West after Vatican II. Let's hope Pope Francis joins Benedict and his patron St Francis in believing (contra the "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" myth) that to glorify God with a liturgy that cherishes the role of beauty is at the same time our solemn religious duty as well the provision of an inestimable service to all Catholics, including the poor. Thomas of Celano noted that St Francis “wished at one time to send his brothers through the world with precious pyxes, so that wherever they should see the price of our redemption kept in an unbecoming manner, they should place It in the very best place…”.

HH | 21 March 2013  

Davdist's warning about over emphasising "the poor" is a timely caution. Fr John George speaks with the angst we have come to expect. Some day perhaps he will tell us the reason for his angst. His list of good works have been continually recognised by the Church as examples of living the Gospel for as long as I can remember. Perhaps Fr Andrew didn't mention those ways of identifying the Church with the poor because, together with other Christians, we Catholics have been praying for, and materially supporting, the poor in our society, in the way Fr John has listed, since colonial times. Stephen's comment is a good reality-check. The people on whom he eavesdrops often give the impression that the symbolic value matters more than the 'real, concrete stuff'. I would hazard a guess that they also value 'real connections and relationships with real people.' I believe Fr Andrew emphasises the symbolic value of Pope Francis's words and actions as sign posts for the rest of us to follow. And anyone who drives a lot knows that sign posts are easier to follow than a set of instructions.

Ian Fraser | 21 March 2013  

Joan, I would expand the definition of ‘poor’. But its not meaningless, its in our families and neighbourhoods. It’s the victims of relationship breakdown. The mums and dads who struggle to survive materially, who are lonely or angry and sometimes make poor decisions as a result, the dads (mainly) who don’t see much of their children, and most of all the children, who absorb all this, often see little of their dads, and are often deprived of the stability and sometimes even the knowledge of family life. The results are evident in social dysfunction statistics. It is a major issue that we don't seem to have picked up on. The church advocates for the poor, and its welfare agencies pick up the pieces of those in special need or whose lives have become a disaster, the St V d Paul works unheralded in keeping many going materially, and our school counsellors try to pick up the pieces re individual children who present with problems. But I see little church, parish or school sponsored education in relationships and parenting, both requiring skills and under huge pressure today. Pro-active preventative work offers hope and might save so much suffering. Maybe something we could try.

David Moloney | 21 March 2013  

Thanks Ian Fraser for trying to reconcile the two. I guess the problem I have with the use of symbols when talking about people is that, to me anyway, it disembodies the reality. Like Andrew Hamilton says himself "The poor were spiritualised or identified with those who lacked meaning in their lives. That left untouched the real poor of Latin America..." Well, aren't we doing the same when we talk about people as symbols? What we need is not symbols but saints! Real, touchable saints in our real communities. Isn't that why the Son of God came as a man to us? So we could touch Him, be with Him, ask Him questions and then "Love one another as I have loved you?" not because He was a symbol but because they got infected with his genuine Love. I teach scripture at my local public school because these kids (who are Catholic) would not receive scripture if I didn't go to them. They aren't all sufferring with economic poverty, some are. But I view them as marginal Catholics. Yes Andrew, what does it mean in concrete terms? Why mainly these demographics? Why are powerful and resourceful people needed? Are they the loving saints I am looking for? But it also seems that rich people happily gave some of their wealth to saints in the past. I guess what I don't see in the way that some jesuits speak is the Love of God. It seems cloaked in other words like "advocacy", "catholic institutions" and "social justice". Is that where we find God's love for the poor? I genuinely think we may be speaking the same thing but using different languages.

Stephen | 21 March 2013  

Maybe, Andrew, just maybe, the Australian Jesuits could review their educational services in Australia and shut down Riverview College, Xavier College and St Ignatius Norwood whose trained leaders, Abbott, Hockey, Hartcher, Joyce,Pyne etc would be more of a credit to a corporate training institution which hated the poor or any connection with them. Poverty begins at home, Andy.

Michael D. Breen | 21 March 2013  

I think it is pretty obvious who the poor are. What I think is not clearly stated is who or what the catholic church is. Sometimes it is the assembly of catholics at their local liturgical centre (The Parish Church); sometimes it is all these communities gathered together as a diocese under a bishop; sometimes it all these dioceses united under Synod of Bishops; sometimes it is the world-wide community of catholics under the Bishop of Rome, in his role as Servant of the Servants of God. Wait a minute. If the man at the top (and so far it can only be a man) is the servant of the most lowly in this world-wide community then the real movers and shakers in the Catholic church are Mr and Mrs Christian who go to mass, receive the sacraments, send their children to catholic schools and religious instruction, and love their neighbours as they love themselves. (See Parable of the Good Samaritan) Christ's teaching and his example makes it clear that he expects his followers as individuals and as a group not only to help those in need, but those in need who are neglected and despised by other do-gooders.

Uncle Pat | 21 March 2013  

A Church of the Poor will speak truth to power on behalf of the most vulnerable: for example, the unborn. Nathan the prophet skewered King David's self-righteousness with the words "You are the man." A Church of the Poor will say to pro-abortion politicians of all stripes: "You are the man." Until they repent like David, they should not be welcome at the Table of the Lord.

HH | 22 March 2013  

Well John Frawley - you do actually have a choice - it' not the church's/pope's responsibility to "opt for the poor". It's our collective obligation based on Jesus' teaching and example. You can either be one of the poor, or be in solidarity with them. The so-called rich already have their place (ie already included) but we still haven't shown any solidarity/justice with and for the poor.

AURELIUS | 22 March 2013  

Yes, despite great professional educational and welfare structures, Christian life still depends on ordinary people in parishes. How to encourage them? Small groups using Cardijn's 'see, judge, act' is one proven method.

David Moloney | 22 March 2013  

Aurelius and David Moloney, I read your comments with a certain degree of envy and admiration. You both said in a few lines what I was trying to say in twenty. If the Catholic Church is to be a church of the poor and for the poor (and with the poor), let's not flick pass the ball to others (Vinnies, the parish pastoral council, Caritas, Religious Orders, the hierarchy), let it begin with me.

Uncle Pat | 22 March 2013  

HH - When Pope Francis warned against the Church being simply a compassionate NGO, I think he was putting secular catholics on notice: those catholicss most prone to "kneel before the world". To sell out to that nasty pernicious form of humanism that refuses to recognize the whole person. When the spiritual dimension of human nature is rejected, we no longer have an integral, but only a partial humanism, one which rejects the fundamental aspect of the whole person. This secularism is widespread in Latin America. According to one report I read, 40 percent of Uruguayans have no religious affiliation at all. Not surprisingly, Uruguay also has relatively liberal abortion laws along with same-sex civil unions and gay adoption and it will soon legalize gay marriage.

DavidSt | 22 March 2013  

Thank you Andrew.I believe we all have "unfinished" business with those in need. The symbolism comes in as it seems that Pope Francis intends to inspire us to participate, just as Jesus not only inspired his disciples and every Christian with his wonderful love and devotion to the rejected and disadvantaged people he met, but he also intended us to play our part in this great venture. As Uncle Pat suggested, it all begins with me.

eric | 27 March 2013  

Pope Francis' recent symbolic actions/gestures had a direct impact on the ceremonial life of an Australian Franciscan parish on Holy Thursday. In a middle class Sydney parish, under the care of Conventual Franciscan Friars, the washing of the feet suddenly included a gesture never before enacted - the priest not only washed and dried the 12 parishioner's feet, he also kissed them. The priest imitated the gesture of the pope who had taken the name of the founder of this order of friars. He imitated it with 12 men dressed in white cassocks. Women and children have never been included in this liturgical ritual at this parish, and it is lukely thry never will be. Because a change of attitude that would include the vulnerable, marginalised and outsiders is not popular. Financial benefactors will unfortunately continue to be honoured in this and annual tradition that honours 12 men, representing the 12 chosen by Jesus. Judas was one of the 12. As long as this tradition continues in a conservative trajectory and remains unchallenged, women and children will find it hard to connect with a ritual that excludes them, albeit a symbolic gesture.

Damien | 31 March 2013  

"As long as this tradition continues in a conservative trajectory..." Damien, the conservative trajectory was set by none other than Jesus Christ, who washed the feet of the apostles - including Judas, as you note - and not anyone else in the room, including any women or men servants that may have been present (Mary?). So here is the choice: do we go with a non-conservative trajectory in order to include women and children supposedly excluded, or do we go with...Our Lord?

HH | 01 April 2013  

In John's account, what did Jesus suggest that the washing of feet symbolized? Jesus knew that the Father had put all things UNDER HIS POWER, and that He had come from God and was returning to God... He tells Peter that the washing of his feet symbolizes forgiveness of his sin to return him to a 'clean'relationship with God. It is only logical to deduce that God expects nothing less from us in response to the sins of our brethren. And yes, Judas was amongst the twelve. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount on prayer, Jesus says: 'For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses'. No doubt, God puts a very great emphasis on our relationships since our lives are to reflect His character. If we have begun to 'put on Christ', would we be a good example of His love for us if we held grudges, hated our brother, or would not forgive another? Obviously, no. Putting on Christ demands that we 'put off' these carnal destroyers of relationships and replace them with Christian virtues. Peter asks Christ, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'. Christ's answer should give us a clue to how He feels about this issue. Peter had ventured a number he thought would be sufficient to establish his forbearance. Christ, though, pulls out all the stops, telling him that there is no set limit: 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'. We are indeed fortunate and can be thankful that same unlimited forgiveness applies to us when we need God's mercy.

Bernstein | 03 April 2013  

Why did the Pope choose to wash the feet of male and female prisoners amongst which were two muslims? Because disciples are not defined by gender, age, race nor religion...I am the one in ten . A number on a list. I am the one in ten. Even though I don`t exist. Nobody knows me. Even though I`m always there. A statistic, a reminder. Of a world that doesn`t care. My arms enfold the dole queue. Malnutrition dulls my hair. My eyes are black and lifeless. With an underprivileged stare. I`m the beggar on the corner. Will no-one spare a dime? I`m the child that never learns to read. Cause no-one spared the time. I`m the murderer and the victim. The licence with the gun. I`m a sad and bruised old lady. In an ally in a slum. I`m a middle aged businessman. With chronic heart disease. I`m another teenaged suicide. In a street that has no trees. I`m a starving third world mother. A refugee without a home. I`m a house wife hooked on Valium. I`m a pensioner alone. I`m a cancer ridden spectre. Covering the earth. I`m another hungry baby. I`m an accident of birth... And as He forgives us for the suffering inflicted on Him. Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing. He calls disciples such as these, who in particular share His suffering, the Cross, to forgive the world for the suffering inflicted on them. As He knows their prayerful love, fruit of suffering and forgiveness, will save the rest of us.

Damaris | 04 April 2013  

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