A Poor Church For the Poor

During his recent visit to South Korea, Pope Francis touched upon many familiar themes in his talks and homilies.  One in particular that he returned to was his desire that the Catholic Church be “a poor church for the poor,”  a vision he first expressed in the days immediately following his election.   It should not be surprising that he had strong words on this subject for the Korean bishops, and that what he had to say made them feel uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that when they posted a transcript of his address, they omitted part of his address.  As reported by NCR, they left out the following:

I have said that the poor are at the heart of the Gospel; they are present there from beginning to end. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus made this clear at the outset of his ministry. And when in Matthew 25 he speaks of the latter days, and reveals the criterion by which we will all be judged, there too we find the poor. There is a danger, a temptation which arises in times of prosperity: it is the danger that the Christian community becomes just another “part of society”, losing its mystical dimension, losing its ability to celebrate the Mystery and instead becoming a spiritual organization, Christian and with Christian values, but lacking the leaven of prophecy. When this happens, the poor no longer have their proper role in the Church. This is a temptation from which particular Churches, Christian communities, have suffered greatly over the centuries; in some cases they become so middle class that the poor even feel ashamed to be a part of them. It is the temptation of spiritual “prosperity”, pastoral prosperity. No longer is it a poor Church for the poor but rather a rich Church for the rich, or a middle class Church for the well-to-do. Nor is this anything new: the temptation was there from the beginning. Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians in his First Letter (11:17), while the Apostle James was even more severe and explicit (2:1-7): he had to rebuke these affluent communities, affluent Churches for affluent people. They were not excluding the poor, but the way they were living made the poor reluctant to enter, they did not feel at home. This is the temptation of prosperity.

I am not admonishing you because I know that you are doing good work. As a brother, however, who has the duty to confirm his brethren in the faith, I am telling you: be careful, because yours is a Church, which is prospering, a great missionary Church, a great Church. The devil must not be allowed to sow these weeds, this temptation to remove the poor from very prophetic structure of the Church and to make you become an affluent Church for the affluent, a Church of the well-to do – perhaps not to the point of developing a “theology of prosperity” – but a Church of mediocrity.

I post this long quote not to call attention to the discomfiture of the Korean bishops, but rather to turn the attention back upon us in the American church.  What have we done, and what are we doing to become “a poor church for the poor”?   Have we succumbed to the temptation to become a “spiritual organization”, a “middle class Church for the well-to-do”?

Since the election of Pope Francis there has a been a fair amount of press attention on this question.  The Bishop of Limburg, Germany, was removed from office, apparently for his opulent life-style.  (The German press dubbed him the “bishop of bling”.)   In the United States, the archbishops of Newark and Atlanta have been roundly criticized for what was perceived to be overly lavish spending on their mansions.   Cardinal Dolan, whose lifestyle is nowhere near as lavish, has been gently challenged by the New York Times.

The example bishops set is important, and can have a far reaching impact.  For a fictional example, consider the saintly Bishop Myriel who saved Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Miserables.  For a real world example, consider Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  However, I think too much focus on individual bishops, good or bad, can detract from the more pressing question:  what is each one of us doing to help make us a “poor church for the poor”?   At the end of the day the Church will live or die at the level of individuals and parishes.  While we can and should look to our bishops for guidance and leadership, we are responsible for following them, for bringing their vision (or really, the vision of the Gospels) to life on a daily basis.   Or, as I posted a couple days ago, what each one of us “writes” on a daily basis is the form that the gospel message will take today.

What signs should we be looking for that our parish has become a “spiritual organization” that has lost the “leaven of prophecy”?  It is easy to look in on a parish from the outside and be critical—especially  if said parish differs from our own preferences and prejudices in terms of liturgy or theology.  But it is much more difficult to look critically at our own communities and find fault.  (As Jesus put it:  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Mt 7:3.)  Looking back over the parishes I have belonged to, I find things to praise, though in my mind not enough.  But, as my wife argued, we have throughout our marriage belonged to parishes that have a large number of working class and lower middle class parishes, and are thus less prone to the failings that the Pope is warning against.  Perhaps:  I am not sure.

Two specific examples do come to mind:  one bad and one good.   We once belonged to a parish that supported a family in India; every month there was a second collection for their support.  By the time we joined the parish this had been going on for several years and had become routine.    There was no information about them readily available;  we certainly never prayed for them in our mass intentions or otherwise engaged with them, even remotely, as human persons or brothers in Christ.  We were doing good, but their poverty and precarity had no real meaning for us.  Like the semi-apocryphal “pagan babies” of old, this family seemed only to exist as an object for our charity.

At our current parish the pastor, after the homily on the gospel about Lazurus and the rich man, put out a five gallon water bottle in the back of our church.  It was labeled Pro Lazaro qui quondam povere: for Lazurus, who once was poor.  He said that all the money would go to the poor, and encouraged people to thrown in their spare change.  Quickly, however, dollar bills started showing up, followed by fives and twenties.  He emptied the jug the week after Easter, and the final collection was over $1,000.  The pastor solicited suggestions for how to use the money, but a couple weeks later announced that he had made an “executive decision”:  there were two families in the parish who had fallen on hard times, and he had split the money between them.   The jug has been returned to the back of church, and the change and dollar bills are again beginning to accumulate.   The recipients have remained anonymous, but we have the knowledge that they are among us, our brothers and sisters.

So let me conclude with a question for each of you:  what are you and your parish doing, good and bad?  Are you part of a “middle class church for the well-to-do” or do you still recognize “the mystery” of the poor among you?


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  • Jordan

    David, I greatly admire your sollicitude for the materially poor. You are carrying out your mission as a Franciscan. Still, I do wonder if you are underestimating the multivalent properties of poverty. Every person, Dives and Lazarus all, is poor. We are all impoverished because we are broken by sin and must cooperate with the grace of the sacraments for our spiritual health and salvation. Yes, the family who lives in a gated community and drives bespoke cars is not “poor” in the sense most people ascribe to poverty. Dig deeper though, and the anomie caused by endless material want is abundantly apparent. Pope Francis has highlighted this latter poverty as well in his address. I suspect it was Pope Francis’s challenge to confront a poverty of affluence which the Korean bishops could not accept.

    Pope Francis embodies Jesus’ “come follow me” in a way most unlike recent Popes. And yet, he has focused more on themes reminiscent of the poverty and marginalization as found the parable of the ten lepers than focus on themes reminscent of the question of affluent poverty typified by Jesus’ encounter with Matthew’s tax-table. I wish Pope Francis would preach more directly on the latter lesson and theme.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Jordan, I agree completely that there is a spiritual dimension to poverty and that we can be “poor” in the midst of great material “riches”. Mother Theresa said something about this at one point that still rings true to me. I can’t find the quote, but it was about poverty in the West.

      But I think you are forcing a reading if you think Pope Francis is not focusing specifically on the material poor in this quote and in other places. Matthew 25 is certainly about aiding the material poor. If the passage about Jesus in the synagogue is Luke 4, then Jesus was reading from Isaiah a passage about the poor: prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, debtors.

      It is just a guess, but I think Francis does not preach directly on the poverty of affluence, as you describe it, precisely because he wants the well-to-do to come out of themselves and care about others. The best way to break free of the poverty of affluence is to stop navel-gazing and focus on our brothers and sisters in Christ who lack some or all of the basic material necessities of life. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you” (Mt 6:33) seems to be advice offered to those who have enough and crave more, as opposed to those who have nothing.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Jordan, though I do not accuse you of this, there is one thing lurking in the background that is shaping my response on the question of spiritual poverty. In my work on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the Secular Franciscans, I have discovered that any attempt to discuss material poverty receives very strong push back in the form of “spiritual poverty is a more important problem in the world.” The speaker creates a false dichotomy and uses this as a reason to not address material poverty. Learning to deal with this has been one of the hardest parts of my new ministry.

      I really do not understand this phenomenon. My guess is that it is an unfortunate by-product of the culture wars. Somehow, anything related to social justice has become identified with the Catholic “left” and with heterodoxy; therefore, any discussion of poverty (beyond the duty to personal charity) is regarded as suspect. Perhaps there is more going on as well.

      Many years ago I read a quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas that directly addressed this. It was in the novel “The Cardinal” and it was something to the effect that the spiritual life requires some basic level of material well-being in order to prosper. If anyone can pin this quote down for me (with a reference to the exact location in the Summa or wherever), I would be grateful.

      • Melody

        I think “both-and” is the right approach here; we shouldn’t neglect either spiritual or material poverty.

      • Julia Smucker

        I don’t understand the dichotomy either, as it seems to me that spiritual and material poverty are inextricably interrelated, a significant part of that relationship being that a cause or perhaps a symptom (or perhaps both) of spiritual poverty is ignoring material poverty.

        Predictably enough, I agree with Melody.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Yes, as soon as I read Melody’s comment, I said, “Wow, that sounds like Julia!” :-)

      • Jordan

        David, perhaps the reluctance of some secular Franciscans to be active in the lives of the poor stems from politics. A more proximate reason might be communication barriers between some poor persons and some more prosperous persons.

        When I was in college, I worked over the summer in a soup kitchen and clothing depot. Sometimes I worked in food prep, but never on the serving line. We received excellent artisan breads from a local baker. Still, many of the guests could not eat ciabatta. I’ll never forget a woman yelling at one of the servers “Hamburger buns! We need hamburger buns!” while the server stood there befuddled. We had no hamburger buns at that time (later the charity found a donor with buns.)

        I, in Marie Antoinette mode, found the person’s behavior to be rude and counterproductive. In my household, one of the first words we children learned was “please”. We also learned that shouting in public was not acceptable unless one was in peril. Otherwise, shouting indicates anger or belligerence. This woman violated both rules, and in my mind didn’t deserve hamburger buns. What I didn’t realize then is that many of the materially poor have had to struggle to find even the basic necessities of life. Polite talk does not get one far in these situations. Making a scene often does. There are other valences to this story, namely that everyone who worked in the kitchen was white and this woman was African-American. Needless to say, situations like these were not uncommon on the food line.

        The intersection of race, socioeconomic position, and customs often create uncomfortable situations for all those involved. Perhaps some more affluent SFO’s do not want to become intimately involved with the lives of the poor simply because they perceive themselves to be incapable of communication with the poor.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Jordan, I too have experienced “Marie Antoinette” moments: it is hard learning that gratitude is often a middle class virtue. I am reminded of a story that is told about Mother Theresa: one of her sisters complained, “The poor lord it over us!” And Mother Theresa thundered back, “The poor are our Lord!”

          The problem that I am pointing at, though, and that Tausign has also encountered, is not so much a problem engaging with poor people but rather engaging with poverty as a socio-cultural reality. They see individual poor people, and are willing to help them, but shy away from discussing the existence and origin of poverty.

        • Melody

          I can’t agree that courtesy is a middle class virtue; I have known poor people whose graciousness far exceeded mine. I think some people come across as brusque and rude because of painful things they are dealing with. Then again some people are just like that. But it cuts across class lines. I think it is important when doing volunteer work to do it without expectations and just accept that people are how they are.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    David you are correct in framing this discussion around material poverty,(lack of resources, unfilled needs, destitution or any similar description). The pope is not referring here (above) to ‘spiritual poverty’, which can have both a positive and negative sense, depending on the topic of discussion.

    Moreover, your diagnosis of ‘pushback’ in the fraternities is spot on, though this is not limited to Franciscan followers. It certainly permeates the entire Church in America. My feeling is that we have ‘idolized’ our political stances and allowed them to supersede the demands of the gospel. Sadly, most of our sisters and brothers are trapped in ideological positions that could be easily thwarted if they were not so blinded by the culture.

    The ‘life-project’ that we embrace in profession is supposed to guided by the OFS Rule and we ourselves are called to evangelize others. Fr. Benet Fonck, OFM wrote a commentary to the Rule (Called to Follow Christ) which sets a scheme, in which the articles of the Rule move in phases towards fulfillment. Regarding Chapter 2 – The Way of Life: Arts. 4,5,6 set the purpose, and meaning to what we have embraced. Arts.7,8,9 discuss the necessary prerequisites of conversion and worship to embark on the journey. Arts. 10-14 discusses how all of this is expressed in our personal life, though simple living, community building and responsible service. Finally, Arts 15-19 discuss the ministry and evangelical aspect of spreading the gospel thru concrete actions.

    Many Seculars are content to stop in the early phases being content with their own ‘holiness’ or ‘personal transformation’. Many see the last grouping as optional. Of course, the tragic irony is that without the evangelical ministry their ‘personal transformation’ is stunted and not complete. In some sad cases this aborted transformation falls in upon itself, leaving the individual, cut off from their true calling/mission; bitter and judgmental. In some sense, this can be generalized into the general Christian population and we are paying a price for it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I very much agree with this reading. The opposite danger is to skip the personal transformation and skip directly to the final stages, of concrete action. These can either be misguided as they are not properly grounded in the gospel, or lead to burnout as the individual is not properly formed to face the obstacles and difficulties being encountered.

  • crystal

    It would be easier to take the ‘poor church for the poor’ seriously if the church itself spent more of its wealth on charity.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Ummmm….what wealth? The Church is not that rich: many universities in America have bigger endowments than the Vatican and most dioceses are in the black but are not in any sense rich. I think that churches, both at the parish and diocesan level, could do more, but this would be more in intent and focus than in dipping into large, hidden piles of cash that have been hoarded.

      • crystal

        I’m thinking of a past article in The Economist that says that the church in the US spends only a small fraction of its money on charity, and of that, about half comes from the US government …. http://www.economist.com/node/21560536
        And the Vatican does seem pretty wealthy to me – their art collection alone must be worth quite a lot.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          An interesting article, but one riddled with speculation and outright error. For instance, it talks about the wealth of the Church in New York City and includes its real estate: assets which are so illiquid as to be unusable. (When I was a kid, a similar problem afflicted some Wisconsin farmers: their land had a huge book value, but it was unrealizable and the farms themselves had very low incomes.) The same applies to the Vatican art collection. John Allen wrote about this recently and noted that all the art is regarded as patrimony that the Church cannot sell, and so it is carried on the books at 1 euro value for each piece. Beyond the art, the Vatican has an endowment of about 1 billion: this would make it rich if it was a small liberal arts college (top schools such as Swarthmore, Williams and Amherst have more than this, but most have less) but it is tiny compared to most large universities and very small considering the size of the operation involved.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe, I agree with your points regarding poverty.

        I think there is also a temptation for the better-off to use this aid as a fetish. That is to say, to not only enjoy the legitimate right to feel good when giving aid, but also to falsely endow it with “supernatural”, or more precisely, “magical” powers. An idea may develop that this aid will somehow ensure the rich person’s material well being, since it is the “expected reward” for generosity. This easily becomes superstition.

        An antidote to this, as I see it, is to do more continuous pro-bono activities, as one’s calling and talents dictate. This will put the well-off in contact with the very persons who need help, and not with some abstract “program for the poor”.

        This continued contact will tend to obligate and place more demands, some material and some not, exactly as intended. A solidarity of sorts may then develop, and it should help mitigate the fear of poverty and abandonment, for both sides. Finally, the need for fetishes will likely diminish as well.

        In essence, when it comes to poverty, let us do more, and talk less.

  • crystal

    “the art is regarded as patrimony that the Church cannot sell”

    From what I’ve read, the art in the Vatican museums belongs to the pope and it’s up to him what’s done with it. This is mentioned in an article about a piece of the Parthenon that the Vatican has that it has finally ‘loaned’ back to Greece but will not give back permanently … “Spinola, the head of the Vatican museums’ classical antiquities department, could not say for certain whether the loan of the sculpture would be extended, or whether the Vatican might lend the Greeks the other two Parthenon fragments it owns.The pieces were the property of the Pope, and the decision would be his, Mr Spinola said.” … http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7717269.stm

    As far as the church’s patrimony goes, it’s all over the place – real estate in exclusive parts of London, for instance … http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/21/vatican-secret-property-empire-mussolini

    I know what I’ve said will be unpopular, but as a Catholic, I’m honestly horrified by the wealth of the church in the face of the world’s poverty. I’ll shut up now :)

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No need to shut up! :-)

      However, if I may, I think you are (perhaps unintentionally) making part of my argument for me. Yes, we can discuss whether the larger Church—be it the Vatican or the handful of very large and rich dioceses in the Western world (e.g. New York)—should continue to maintain the capital wealth that they do, and if the choices of our pastors are the best use of Church resources given the needs of the Church and the world today.

      But, as I wrote in the original post, I believe that this question detracts each of us from the more important and pressing question: what are we doing, at the individual and parish level, to address the need for us to be a poor church for the poor? If our Pope and bishops lead (as Francis is doing now, as Martin of Tours, Oscar Romero, and many other bishops and Popes have done in the past), then we are called to follow. If we think they are not leading, or are not moving fast enough or in the right direction, then we are called to carry the ball: as St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, St Damien of Molokai and hundreds and thousands of men and women (most known only to God) have done before.

      In writing this I am not accusing you of failing to do these things—I have no idea and I am happy to give you the benefit of the doubt in my ignorance. I am looking at myself and my own parish, very mindful of the words of St. Francis: “begin anew, for up to now you have done nothing.”

      • crystal

        I do agree we ourselves should follow the advice. I’m probably in the minority here in that I’m close to the poverty threshold myself, and that doubtless influences how I feel when I see the money accumulated by the church.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    I’m concerned that several commentators have attempted to gloss over the remarks of the Holy Father that were quoted above. According to the scripture citations he quoted these divisions are abusive and sinful. ‘A poor church for the poor’ is the natural state of the church. He doesn’t accuse them of refusing to give alms (they ‘are doing good work’) or lacking humility, but rather warns them of blending into the society as another ‘spiritual organization’. He admonishes them for absorbing the general cultural values and abandoning their prophetic role…specifically regarding the importance and dignity of the poor in the eyes of God and their unmet needs. This brings division and in turn causes the poor to feel unwelcome and not at home in the Father’s house. In my opinion, by repeatedly pointing to the ‘the temptations, dangers, and works of the devil’, the Pope is saying that this is not only spiritual negligence…but that the effect of this is violence to the gospel.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    In a comment from above [September 2, 2014 9:43 am] David remarked…’The problem that I am pointing at, though, and that Tausign has also encountered, is not so much a problem engaging with poor people but rather engaging with poverty as a socio-cultural reality. They [those who pushback on social justice action] see individual poor people, and are willing to help them, but shy away from discussing the existence and origin of poverty.’

    The breakthrough may come in asking questions such as (1) What does Pope Francis mean when he says that ‘the poor are at the heart of the Gospel’? (2) Why is the treatment of these individuals specifically a measure of eternal life or damnation? (3) Why does Jesus assert that the poor will always be with us? (4) What does Pope Francis means when he says that they provide a prophetic call? (5) What does he mean by noting that the poor have ‘a proper role in the Church’?

    My own response would be something to this effect: The poor (and afflicted) bear the cross and resemble Christ on the cross, in a way that no others do. They bear the burden of ‘the sin of the world’; (the sin outside their own making) more intensely and in a fashion that no others do. In this ‘cross bearing’ respect they resemble Jesus more closely. This is a mystical reality. Just as a priest, or religious, or secular are ‘called’ to various ministries in the Church…so too are the poor…strange as that may seem…they are afflicted and bear the heaviest burdens of life.

    The ancients (and we too) ask…’why is this person sick or diseased or wretched…is it due to his sins or that of his father?’ “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (cf. John 9:1-3) The cause of wretchedness and misery is the sinful work of man and society…the work of salvation and healing is the work of God. This is a display for all time…both of the reality of the affliction, caused by sin (the sin of all), present for all time…and in the salvation of God, overcoming the affliction. Whether the poor are bitter or grateful, belligerent or peaceful, rowdy or quiescent…should be of little concern for us who have been spared this burden. The main point is that they (the poor) are an essential and central concern in the economy of the Gospel. They have a prophetic role that is called for by God and they deserve our respect and gratitude.

    Personally and as a social body, we are called to avoid sin and not increase the misery of the world…but just as importantly we are called to do good, give aid and reduce burdens, cry for justice, right wrongs that are ingrained in culture. This requires conversion. This is true penance.

    • Jordan

      Tausign [September 3, 2014 1:57 pm]: “My own response would be something to this effect: The poor (and afflicted) bear the cross and resemble Christ on the cross, in a way that no others do. They bear the burden of ‘the sin of the world’; (the sin outside their own making) more intensely and in a fashion that no others do. In this ‘cross bearing’ respect they resemble Jesus more closely.

      I am not sure what you mean by affliction. I am severely bipolar, so much so that I stop functioning as a “normal” adult (i.e. severe anxiety, paranoia etc.) after three days without medication. Having a psychotic break is certainly a cross I have experienced many times, and even on “normal” days I am not without some difficulty. However, I am wealthy enough to receive quality psychiatric care. Does this mean that my cross is less than that of the materially poor, or that the witness of the materially poor always takes priority over the chronically ill? The chronically ill have much to teach about the Cross as well, and their testimony should not be discounted regardless of their material status.

      • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

        Jordan, you ask…“Does this mean that my cross is less than that of the materially poor, or that the witness of the materially poor always takes priority over the chronically ill?”

        I don’t think it’s right to assign a ‘weight’ or ‘degree of difficulty’ in carrying the crosses that each of us bears, except in one respect…I would assume that mine was very light. Only God can judge how each of us bears life’s burdens and the mystical-redemptive value in doing so. With tongue in cheek, I’m only a lay Franciscan…you need to submit your question to a Carmelite 😉