Parish Life: The Poor and Pope Francis
lFr Ray Blake FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2014
The Poor and Pope Francis
“The poor” are very much at the heart of Pope Francis’ papacy. I am glad he spoke of the tragedy of the homeless dying on Rome’s streets; in Brighton one of our rough sleepers was crushed to death because he was sleeping in a large community rubbish bin and was dropped into a crusher.
In my Brighton parish there are a lot of poor people. We feed up to 75 hungry, often homeless people on the seafront every night and although we have problems paying for the maintenance of our Victorian buildings we have no problem finding money to feed the hungry. Parishioners are generous. Getting volunteers to help is a bit more difficult.
Working on the principle that it is better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish or a sandwich, people, like the local council, can criticise us for encouraging the poor rather than helping them to escape poverty. The problem is that this kind of extreme poverty is often part of a whole complex of problems that might include addiction, mental health issues, childhood abuse and family break-up.
“Francis, like his immediate predecessors, seems willing to address the evils within our economic systems and the gulf between rich and poor nations.”
Poverty forms a trap that it is almost impossible to escape from. It eats away at hope and tends to place someone in a community of those who are on the peripheries of society, in a state of permanent fear. Some of our foreign workers can end up living in squalor, five or six men and women sharing a room, exploited by their landlords, exploited by employers. If they are illegal then there is the constant fear of living as an ‘outlaw’ afraid to report abuses, even rape or other crimes, to the authorities, but then the same fears arise for drug users or alcoholics; the authorities are not perceived as being sympathetic to someone who needs to ‘shoot-up’ or drink regularly, whose only source of income is to sell drugs or their bodies.
As the mother of a multiple-handicapped child said to me, “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of social services”. She is afraid to ask for too much, just in case both her children are taken into care because she can’t cope. Her daughter, who rarely sleeps at night, keeps both her mother and her brother up at night, so the boy often arrives late to school and sometimes falls asleep in class.
Another family who are from Eastern Europe live on what might have been described as a ‘sink estate’ and they are constantly harassed by some of their neighbours, filth put through the letter box, graffiti, that sort of thing. The mother and father are depressed, the bullying continues into the primary school for the child, so much so that their daughter is withdrawn and rather than look further the school suspected child abuse, in part because the history of it on the estate. There are reports of child prostitution and paedophile rings every so often in the papers. It is an environment of broken families, with a succession of stepfathers, and the early sexualisation of children.
Poverty brings fear and hopelessness unless, like the monk or nun, it has been voluntarily embraced. It is poverty that lies behind the other issue Pope Francis has been addressing from his first visit outside Rome to the island of Lampedusa. The reason for all those countless deaths in the Mediterranean is an attempt to escape poverty. For a century the Popes have spoken about the wickedness of the vast gulf between rich and poor. Francis, like his immediate predecessors, seems willing to address the evils within our economic systems and the gulf between rich and poor nations. It is also one of the contributory factors to that other issue he seems to want to address, the alienation of the young unemployed. Some parts of Southern Europe have almost 50% youth unemployment, whereas in parts of Africa and South America it is almost total.
Although Christians might become social workers, that is not the vocation of most of us and the Church is not a Non-Governmental Organisation or NGO pushing through drastic social change, though again Christians have introduced radical social change, everything from the abolition of slavery to the promotion of education. The Catholic Church, besides being the biggest source of healthcare in the world, is also the largest non-governmental supplier of education. Yes, we believe in making the world a better place, but that is not our main purpose.
Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. He doesn’t give rights to the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned but he does impose obligations on his followers; he expects us to be generous, in the words of the Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, “to love until it hurts”. It is meanness and self-absorption that Jesus wants to cure in us by getting us to move beyond ourselves to the peripheries, to his Father and to others, this is the ultimate metanoia, or conversion, which is worshipping God ‘in Spirit and Truth’. The alternative to worshipping God is the worship of ourselves or, as Pope Francis puts it, ‘worshipping the devil’. We are called to move beyond ourselves, the Great Commandment is to love God, the second is ‘like unto it, to love one’s neighbour as oneself’. In the lives of the saints we see that love of God and neighbour brings a new quality to love of self, it is placed into an eternal dimension and removed from a neurotic self-obsession. It is this love, ‘Perfect love which casts out fear” and sets us free.
St Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the via media, suggests that excessive poverty is the same as excessive wealth, it distorts and enslaves us. Being set free, liberated, through oneness with Jesus Christ, so that through him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we might worship the Father is our ultimate end. It is not achieved through some clever scheme but begins with our own personal acceptance of the Gospel. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned is the beginning of this acceptance of the Gospel.
Father Ray Blake is the parish priest of St. Magdalen’s Church in Brighton. You can read his blog at marymagdalen.blogspot.co.uk