‘And don’t forget the poor’
And Don’t Forget the Poor.
“I’ve been down so long I think this is up” is the title of a book I read years ago and it accurately reflects my feelings and hopes at this point of time. With the election of a new pope, with the very significant name of Francis, there is every reason to believe that we can get out of the quagmire in which we have been floundering for the last 30 years. Once again it is the poor who will save us, bring us back to a sense of reality and mission. The core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Beatitudes and they begin with “blessed are the poor”. In a world disillusioned with negative equity, bankers’ bonuses, unrepayable mortgages, incomprehensible economic jargon and a dead paper tiger it is time to get back to the real world. In these first moments Pope Francis is sending out a very clear message, carnival time at the medieval court of Peter is over, smoke signals must give way to twitter and facebook, red buttons and silly clothes are for the Via Veneto and Grafton St.
And don’t forget the poor. These were the words whispered to him by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, retired archbishop of São Paulo, immediately after his election. For those of us who have spent most of our lives here in Latin America these words have a special significance. It brings us back to Medellin, Colombia and the year 1968. That was the year of the student revolts in Europe and elsewhere, sending shockwaves through all the institutions, civil and religious, who duly began to pull up the drawbridges. Everything since must be seen in the light of these events. But a very different chain of events was unfolding in this part of the world. In 1968 the bishops of all Latin America met in Medellin to see how Vatican 2 could be applied to their reality. The result was a body of documents which were really revolutionary and the key phrase that was coined was “preferential option for the poor”. It too was to send shockwaves in all directions. Soon the cavalry were riding to the rescue, with military dictatorships springing up all over the subcontinent, orchestrated by Big Brother. It took a long time and a lot of grinding repression before the poor were again pushed off the scene. But the truth will out and the truth will set you free. Once more the poor are back on centre stage, but now at a world level. There is no going back.
Poverty is one of the scourges of our age. Of course it always has been. Today there is no excuse. We have the technology. All we need is the political will and that depends on who is at the helm. Hence the importance of political awareness and engagement, not just casting a vote at election time to choose between candidates who have been selected by the oligarchy. Poverty is not just being hungry and not having a decent home. Poverty is not having control of your destiny and this is where the education factor comes into play, but education which excludes nobody. Inevitably the phrase of the great champion of the poor, Dom Helder Cámara, the archbishop of Recife in the northeast of Brazil who died a few years ago, comes to mind, “when I give bread to the poor they call me a saint but when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist”.
Hope springs eternal. We hope for a Church with more transparency, more open to dialogue with other religions and civil society and above all with all the members of the Church itself. We hope for a Church with more concern for people and less for the institution, more emphasis on the sacrament of Baptism and less on separation of clergy and laity. We hope that the example of St. Francis with regard to poverty, peace and ecology will help all humanity to grow into one great family.