Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Poor and Poverty in Evangelii Gaudium

By Víctor Codina, SJ (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Biblioteca Amerindia
April 2014

1. Symbolic gestures

The new Pope Francis, before giving many speeches and writing encyclicals, made a series of symbolic gestures charged with great significance that have been easily understood by everyone and widely aired by the social media.

Those gestures have changed the church environment that predominated up to now: kissing a disabled boy and embracing a man with a completely deformed face, washing the feet of a young Muslim woman, eating with children with Down syndrome in Assisi, going to the island of Lampedusa on his first trip outside of Rome and tossing out a wreath of yellow and white flowers to commemorate the deceased immigrants, convening a world day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria because the faces of the children dead because of chemical weapons strongly challenged him, using his old shoes rather than the red shoes of his predecessor, not living in the Vatican apostolic palace but in the Saint Martha residence, traveling around Rome in a simple small utilitarian car so as not to scandalize the people in the peripheral working class neighborhoods, answering the questions of a non-believing journalist, inviting rabbis from Argentina to Saint Martha's, giving little shoes to Cristina Fernández de Kirschner's grandchild, receiving Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, bringing a bouquet of flowers to the grave of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, inviting four beggars for his birthday,...These "little flowers of Pope Francis", like the "little flowers of John XXIII", have been easily understood by the people.

But gradually he has been sending out great pastoral messages and his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World, presents the whole program of his pontificate, his pastoral roadmap. From this exhortation, we will point out what Francis says about the poor and poverty.

2. Realities are more important than ideas (231-233)

This statement, surprising in the writings of the Magisterium which often seems to put ideas ahead of reality, affirms the priority of reality over the elaboration of ideas. Otherwise, reality is hidden by angelism, totalitarianism of the relative, nominalism, projects that are more form than real, ahistorical fundamentalism, ethicism without mercy, intellectualism without wisdom. Ideas must be connected with reality. The incarnation of the Word is the criterion that leads us to treasure the history of the Church as the history of salvation, to remember our saints who inculturated the gospel in the lives of our peoples, not pretend to develop thoughts disconnected from reality. On the other hand, prioritizing reality leads us to bring the Word into practice, to not build on sand.

Aren't we looking at the Latin American method of starting from reality, joining seeing with judging and acting? This used and supported methodology will positively determine the whole subject of poverty and the poor.

3. Prophetic denunciation of an unjust system (53-59)

According to the above, we can't be surprised that the exhortation begins by denouncing the great ills of today's society and harshly criticizing the model of society that prevails: no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, which is an economy that kills, that values a two-point drop in the stock market more than the death of an old man from the cold; no to the new idolatry of money; no to the dictatorship of a faceless economy based on a desire for power and possession that knows no bounds; no to money that rules instead of serving and that threatens to degrade people who are outside the market and who are reduced to scrap and surplus; no to the inequality that generates violence, because it springs from an economic system that is unjust at its roots; no to the exacerbation of consumption, no to the social cancer of corruption, to the culture of social anesthesia that prevents us from sympathizing with the suffering.

Faced with this situation, we are exhorted to disinterested solidarity, to create a more humane social order, to turn the economy and financial system towards an ethos that favors human beings, to remember that to fail to share our resources with the poor is to rob them and put them to death. In the name of Christ, we are reminded of the obligation the rich have to help, respect and promote the poor.

4. The new faces of the poor (210-216)

New types of poverty and vulnerability are pointed out, new faces of the poor in which we are called to recognize Christ: the homeless, drug addicts, refugees, indigenous people, the elderly who are more and more alone and neglected, migrants, victims of human trafficking, women who are doubly poor and who suffer from exclusion, abuse and violence, unborn children. In all these cases, it's about defending life and human rights.

To this is added the vulnerability of creation at the mercy of economic interests and indiscriminate exploitation, which leads to desertification of the soil, ecological illness, turning even the wonderful marine world into underwater cemeteries stripped of life and color. Like St. Francis, we Christians are called to care for the vulnerability of the people and the world in which we live.

Surely Pope Francis' sensitivity towards the poor and the new faces of poverty is nothing recent. It's not an improvisation; it's the fruit of long years of contact with and contemplation of the poor, the slums, and of pastoral support for the slum priests of Buenos Aires. This attitude is the result of taking the social dimension of faith seriously.

5. The social dimension of faith (175-186)

The social aspect forms an essential part of the faith and the Christian kerygma. Community life and commitment to others are at the very heart of the Gospel. The acceptance of the love of God implies wanting, seeking out and caring for the good of others. What we do towards others has a transcendent aspect. Our brothers and sisters are an extension of the Incarnation of Jesus (Mt 25:40). Reading of the Scriptures assures us that faith is not just a purely personal relationship with God, and that our response to that love can't be reduced to small personal gestures towards the needy, a kind of "charity à la carte".

Jesus' plan is the Kingdom of God, that God reign among us and in society through justice, fraternity, peace, and dignity for all, for the whole human being and for all people. The commandment to charity embraces all dimensions of existence, all individuals, all milieus of coexistence, and every people. Nothing human can be alien to it.

Religion can't seclude itself in the private arena, just to prepare souls for heaven. God also wants the happiness of His children here on Earth, even though they are called to the fullness of eternity. No one can demand that we relegate religion to the secret privacy of the individual without any influence in social and national life, without being concerned about the institutions of civil society, without commenting on the events that affect citizens.

Authentic faith always involves commitment to changing the world, transforming values, leaving something better behind our passing through this world. It is incumbent on Christian communities to analyze the situation of their country objectively and draw out the practical implications from the social principles.

6. Hearing the cry of the poor (186-191)

One consequence of the above is that we Christians are invited to hear the cry of the poor, as God heard the cry of the Israelites in Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8,10), as the New Testament urges us to hear the cry of the workers who were denied their wages (James 5:4). How can he who closes his heart against his brother in need remain in God's love? (1 Jn 3:17). The Church, guided by the Gospel, hears the cry for justice, which means solving the structural causes of poverty, promoting the comprehensive development of the poor, offering the most everyday gestures of solidarity and support.

But solidarity is much more than sporadic generosity. It's creating a new guiding mentality in terms of community, the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by some. It's recognizing the social role of property and the universal use of goods as primary realities before private property. This solidarity must generate new attitudes without which even structural changes aren't viable in the long term.

Francis' doctrine, purely an updated reflection of the social doctrine in Church tradition, may seem new and even shocking to many. Could it be that we've forgotten the most essential facts of Jesus' gospel such as brotherly love and the communion of goods?

7. A poor Church and for the poor (192-209)

Hearing the cry of the poor becomes part of our flesh when we shudder at the pain of others. All Scripture is a call to compassion and mercy, brotherly love, justice, and humble service to the poor. Let's not worry just about falling into doctrinal error. Let's also worry about whether our defense of doctrinal orthodoxy has become passive, insensitive and complicit in intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes that maintain them.

God's heart has a preferential place for the poor. Salvation came through poor people like Mary and Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel was proclaimed to the poor and Jesus identified with them (Mt. 25:35). Therefore the Church's option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a sociological, philosophical, cultural or political one. We Christians are called to have the same attitude as Christ (Phil. 2:5). The option for the poor is implicit in our Christological faith in that God who became poor for us so as to enrich us with his poverty (Benedict XVI at Aparecida). This is why Pope Francis wants "a poor Church and for the poor." (198)

The poor also have a lot to teach us and their sense of faith evangelizes us. We are to let ourselves be evangelized by them. We must look contemplatively towards the poor. We must value them in their culture, their way of being, their kindness, their faith, not as instruments of political ideology. We must closely accompany them on their path to liberation. Thus it will be possible for the poor to feel at home in the Church. This option for the poor must translate above all into privileged and preferential religious care towards them.

Without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel could be misunderstood and become simply verbiage, like that to which the communication society has accustomed us. Nobody, no Christian, should say that they stay away from the poor because their life choices keep them busy with other business, professional, academic or even church matters. No one can think they are exempt from concern for the poor and social justice. Love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the gospel sense of poverty and of the poor are required of everyone.

At this point, Francis fears that these words will only be the subject of a few comments with no practical impact. But he relies on the openness and good disposition of Christians to welcome this new proposal communally.

8. Popular piety as a theological locus

When a people has inculturated the Gospel in its culture, it always transmits the faith in a new and dynamic way. Thus the people are continuously evangelized and because of this, popular piety has great importance as an expression of the missionary activity of the People of God, always under the action of the Holy Spirit.

Popular piety, sometimes looked at with distrust, in fact reflects the thirst for God among the poor and the little ones, is able to manifest faith with generosity and sacrifice, and in Latin America is a precious treasure where the soul of Latin American peoples is manifest -- a spirituality and a popular mysticism embodied in the culture of the simple people. It expresses faith more symbolically than intellectually, emphasizes more the mode of belief in God (credere in Deum) than the contents of faith (credere Deum), but is a legitimate way of living the faith and feeling part of the Church.

To understand this reality of popular piety, one should approach it with the attitude of the Good Shepherd, with affectionate connaturality. Thus we will be able to understand the faith of the poor -- of the mother who prays the Rosary with her sick child, of a humble candle lit in the home to ask for the protection of Mary, of the loving gaze of the crucified Christ. They are not only a natural quest for divinity, they are expressions of a theological faith animated by the Holy Spirit. Expressions of popular faith have much to teach us. They are a real theological locus to which we must pay attention when we think about a new evangelization.

9. Poverty can't wait (202-208)

The structural causes of poverty must be addressed. Aid is not enough in urgent situations. Inequality is the root of social ills and the world's problems aren't solved without attacking the autonomy of the markets and financial speculation. Economic activity should be directed towards the dignity of persons and the common good and you shouldn't feel irked by talk of ethics, world solidarity, the dignity of the powerless, and a God who demands commitment to justice.

We can't rely on the unseen forces or the invisible hand of the market. Something more than economic growth is required, although that is presupposed -- decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes aimed at a better distribution of income, creation of sources of employment, and social promotion of the poor, are needed.

We need entrepreneurs who let them themselves be challenged by a broader meaning of life. We need politicians able to heal the deep roots of the evils of our world, politicians who really feel the pain of society, of the people, the life of the poor. Government leaders and financial powers that be must raise their eyes and broaden their horizons, ensure dignified work, education, and health care for all citizens. Why not go to God to inspire their plans and make them open not only to charity in micro-relationships (friendships, family, small groups) but also in social, economic and political macro-relationships, to the highest political vocation of seeking the common good?

Church communities who want to live peacefully without cooperating so that the poor might live with dignity, will end up mired in spiritual worldliness, even though it's concealed through religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty speeches, even though they are talking about social issues or criticizing the government...

The pope doesn't want to offend anybody but rather to help those who are enslaved by a selfish, individualistic, and indifferent mentality so that they can free themselves of these unworthy chains and attain a more humane, noble, and fruitful lifestyle and mindset that would bring dignity to their journey through this earth.

10. Under the action of the Risen One and his Spirit (275-280)

Lack of deep spirituality produces pessimism, mistrust and fatalism in many. Many believe that nothing can change, that it is useless to make an effort. But if we think that things won't change, remember that Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death. Jesus Christ lives and has power. Christ, resurrected and glorious, is the deep source of our hope. His help will not fail us.

His resurrection carries a force that has permeated the world. There are outbreaks of resurrection where everything seemed dead; there are dark things, but good and values tend to come back to spring forth and spread. Each day, beauty is reborn in the world, which rises transformed through the storms of history.

Certainly, there are difficulties and experiences of failure. Everything doesn't happen as we might wish in evangelization, but we don't have to throw in the towel, dominated by chronic distrust and spiritual acedia. We are not to seek our own success or careerism since the gospel, which is the most beautiful thing the world has, will be buried under many excuses then.

By faith we are to believe that He marches victoriously through history in union with His own, that the Kingdom is present in history as a small seed, as yeast, as wheat that grows amid the chaff, and that it can always pleasantly surprise us. And all this because the Lord has already penetrated the hidden plot of the story and Jesus didn't rise in vain.

No effort is wasted, no act of love towards God is lost. Our mission isn't a business deal or project, or a humanitarian organization, or a successful show, fruit of our publicity. The Spirit works when, where, and as it likes. We must trust in the Spirit that comes to our aid. We must invoke it. It can heal all that weakens us. It plunges us into a sea where we sometimes even feel dizzy because we don't know what we'll find. But we must allow ourselves to be led by it, stop calculating and wanting to control everything, allow it to illuminate us, guide us, direct us, push us wherever it wants. It knows what is needed in every epoch and moment. That is being mysteriously fruitful.

In sum, the denunciation of unjust poverty as well as the option for the poor and for a poor Church and for the poor, spring necessarily from our cheerful faith in Christ and in his Spirit that fills the universe and renews the face of the Earth.

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