As Pope Francis visits a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, he gives us yet another example to remind us to have special concern for the poor. But, for Francis, is it just about alleviating economic poverty, or is there a deeper message?
From the moment the world learned that the new pope had taken the name Francis, we were prepared for an “Il Poverello” pope. So far, he has lived up to his name: riding the bus home from his election, turning up to pay his hotel bill, living in the simple Vatican hostel, and visiting the refugees at Lampedusa. Pope Francis has provided memorable and prophetic images of the poverty at the heart of the gospel.
As he visits a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro this week, what is the real significance of the pope’s displays of poverty? Why is he so clearly following the advice of his friend and mentor, Claudio Cardinal Hummes, who said at his election, “Do not forget the poor”?
The importance of poverty in the gospel is rooted in the witness of Jesus Christ himself. He not only had “no place to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58), but he also taught that the poor in spirit were blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). Even so, why the continued emphasis on the poor and on poverty? The church speaks of the “preferential option for the poor,” but it can also be seen as the “prophetic option for the poor.”
The Old Testament prophets spoke the word of the Lord to the people with passion and power, but they also acted out the message through prophetic actions. When Hosea, for example, married a prostitute who was unfaithful to him, he was showing in his own life the sorrow and grief God feels at the unfaithfulness of the Israelite nation.
Likewise, when Pope Francis adopts a simple lifestyle and preaches the need for poverty and the need to respect and help the poor, he is doing more than simply pointing out the need to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
There are three levels of Francis’s prophetic option for the poor. The first is the practical need to draw attention to the plight of the poor around the world. By living simply himself and calling others to do the same, he is asking that we remember to assist the poor however possible. By drawing attention to the poor, he reminds us that the gospel demands that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and house the homeless. Pope Francis teaches us: if we ignore them, we are ignoring Christ himself.
The second level is not simply to call for material assistance for the poor, but to criticize the rich in their lust for power and wealth. By focusing on the poor, Francis also calls down God’s judgment not only on greedy and hard-hearted individuals, but also on a world financial system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. By pointing a finger to the poor, Francis shakes a finger at those who oppress and dominate the poor for their own enrichment. In a gentle, but powerfully prophetic way, Francis’ example and continued focus on the poor reminds us of the gospel principle that it is not easy for a rich man to enter heaven.
The third level of the prophetic option for the poor is a theological one. By focusing on those who are materially poor, Francis reminds us that all of us are spiritually poor without the riches of God’s grace. Unless we see ourselves as poor beggars, we cannot be open to God’s grace. If we believe that we already have everything, then we have no need of God. It is only when we see ourselves as impoverished and hungry for God that God can come and “fill the hungry with good things.” When Francis visits the shantytown, we should see his action as a symbol of Christ coming to us in our own squalid and hopeless poverty of our selfishness and sin.
A focus on the poor therefore takes us to the very heart of the gospel – the Magnificat, or the Canticle of Mary. In pounding repetition, the Magnificat reminds us that “he puts down the mighty from their seat, and exalts the humble and meek; he fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends empty away.”
A poor church for the poor, therefore, is not simply a group of well-meaning social workers or do-gooders running a soup kitchen. Instead, the poor church for the poor is a prophetic witness to the world: a living and active condemnation of the rich and mighty, and a reminder that each one of us is spiritually poor, needy, desperately in need of the riches of God’s abundant grace.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.