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Pope Francis' unfinished business with the poor

  • 21 March 2013

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