The Church of the Poor and the Humble, People’s Pope

When Pope Francis I declared, in his introductory sermon, that the Catholic Church would be a church, not just for the poor, but of the poor, I wondered how this could be possible. I’ve read enough of Jon Sobrino, the remarkable El Savadoran liberation theologian, to know of the powerful reformational, justice-oriented strain within the Catholic theological tradition which proclaims the necessity of the church to be a church of the poor. A church in solidarity with the marginalized, the oppressed, the outsider–whom Jesus called the “meek.” But I had heard that the new Pope was not necessarily friendly to liberation theology. And I wondered how the head of a massive institutional structure like the Roman Catholic Church could push a movement toward solidarity with the lowest of society?

It’s still far too early to tell the answer to these questions, of course, but there are some indicators that Pope Francis is serious about wanting to be a church of the poor. The Maundy Thursday ritual, in which he disregarded canon law by washing the feet of two young women at a juvenile detention center, is a profound–albeit symbolic–example of that seriousness. While symbolic acts can be mere tokenism, or simply a way to perpetuate power structures by giving the (false) impression of change, the willingness to break the “law” in the name of love, justice and solidarity with the outsider is a profound example to us all–one which transcends denominational affiliation and institutional loyalty. John Caputo, channeling Derrida, speaks of the ‘good ghost of justice’ which haunts the law and which destabilizes its power. Love does the same thing. Love, at its most white-hot, spurns the regulations and expectations which prevent mercy and justice, by enacting gentle–but profound–deconstructions and subversions. No one was better at haunting the law than Jesus.

What is perhaps most surprising about the subversive action of Pope Francis is that they surprise us. This element of surprise is not limited to Catholicism or any tradition of Christianity. They surprise us when any powerful Christian leader seems to follow in the way of Jesus rather than the way of the powerful. And we surprise ourselves when we let go of our grip on the outsider/insider mentality and when we choose love, justice and mercy over law, over self-presevation, and over the affirmation of the powerful and the power structures we set in place.

Where, in our own lives, are we willing to dispense with the “law” and disregard conventional expectation–the ‘watching eyes’ of the powerful–in order to stand with those whom Jesus loves?

About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and A Complicated Pregnancy: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)