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?