by Chris McDonnell
(Reproduced with the author's permission from The Catholic Times, 29 September 2017)
Early in his ministry as Bishop of Rome, Francis put the principle of a Church of the Poor at the forefront of his teaching. A Church that is poor, speaking to those who are poor. It was-and is-a clear statement of intent that he has not wavered from. Indeed, his very name, taken at the consistory that elected him indicated his chosen path. His subsequent personal actions reinforced that perspective, a simple taste in vestments, a car that was certainly not ‘top of the range’ and living arrangements that rejected the allocated papal apartments. All in all, a man who tries to lead by example, to say it 'as it is'.
What does this mean for the Church in the world and what does it mean in particular for the Vatican? In its two thousand years, the Church has been ‘European looking outward’, preaching a Christ that reflects our values and prejudices, offering a particular view of Church that ignored the necessary inculturation with peoples in other places. When it was attempted those in authority were often none too pleased. Sometimes sanctions were imposed.
Yet beyond our European shores there was a richness that was being neglected. To talk of a Church of the Poor now is to talk of the vast majority of Christians who live in the Third World.
There is a challenge that faces us in the West, a challenge that our rich world has yet to come to terms with. Society has come to accept a ‘cult of money’ as the parameter of success. We want more, the newest, the biggest and best.
Fashions change so last year’s ‘must haves’ get discarded and the Charity shops abound with goods for a cheap quick sale. That their profit goes to a good cause is not in question for without the necessary income they could not help those in need. But is a symptom of our cultural excess.
Of course, many of these fashionable goods and electrical gadgets are produced through the exploitation of Third World peoples who get paid a pittance for their labour. They have no choice for there is a family to feed at home. The basis of liberation theology in Latin America is a preferential option for the poor. It was to that cause that Dom Helder Camara OSB devoted his life in Recife. It is to that cause that men and women have committed their time and energy and their own life’s work. It is their recognition of the Gospel and the demands it makes. Christ is found in the Poor and the marginalised, he is found in those others reject, the socially unacceptable who walk a lonely road.
Within the Church of the affluent West, how can we reach out and recognise the Church of the poor, the Church that is poor?
Maybe we don’t have to look far afield. Maybe within our own communities there are those who are poor, whose poverty arises from a capitalist society that is selfish and thoughtless. By accepting a value system that is built on greed and by raising no objection to benefitting from it, we too ignore the Church of the Poor in our own back yard.
The spread of food banks in the UK, the rise in house prices that is punitive to the young, our treatment of those seeking refuge, all should contribute to an awareness of a poor Church. We are concerned with our own security and wish to maintain a tight control on the levers of power. It is no coincidence that in both Europe and America nationalistic parties have become more vocal in recent years. Selfishness is contagious. In order to keep what we have presently got, we are not willing to take the risk of sharing with others.
The establishment of a barber's shop and a shower block near St Peter’s for Rome’s homeless street people was yet another indication of the concern Francis displays for the less well off.
The Gospel narrative of Martha and Mary indicates two ways of being faithful, two patterns of prayer, two ways of caring for each other with the attentive love of God. We need to look at ourselves and ask many questions for our complacency serves no good purpose.
When Dom Bede Griffiths established his Ashram in Southern India, he took with him minimal furniture. When he discovered that others in the village had less, he got rid of his few bits and pieces to be like them. His Hindu neighbours recognised the sincerity of this Christian monk and when he died, over two thousand of them came to his funeral in the midst of a thunderstorm. A Church of the Poor that preaches through an example of poverty is indeed recognisable as the Church of Christ.
Chris McDonnell is a retired Headteacher, having taught in London, Leeds and on Merseyside before his first headship in Staffordshire in 1978. Since that date he has had two further headships, both in LEA schools in the state sector. He has published in the field of Mathematical education and has contributed over the years to on-going discussions in the Catholic Press, journals and on various blog sites. He is married, with three grown up children and eight grandchildren. To keep sane on the way through, he also writes poetry from time to time. (From the Movement for a Married Clergy website)