Pope Francis, and The Fight Against Poverty
By Sue Leonard
Since Pope Francis started his pontificate, he has made a point of supporting the poor and the needy. He has made it clear, by his words, and his actions, that he wants the Catholic Church to become a poor church for the poor. The church has always seen the outreach to the poor as a central part of its mission. But how well is the church fulfilling this mission today, at home and abroad?
Peadar Kirby Retired Professor Emeritus of International Politics and Public Policy at the University of Limerick.
Pope Francis is, I believe, the first Pope in my lifetime, and possibly in the history of the church who has made the plight of the poor the central theme of his pontificate. This is very significant, and I am greatly heartened by it.
His words have not, yet, had much impact on Ireland. I suspect that many bishops and priests are taken aback by his stance. There has always been social justice in the church’s teaching, but the average catholic hardly knows what it is, and far less what its content is. I think that is true of priests and bishops too. They have paid lip service to social teaching, but, with rare exceptions, have never given it adequate emphasis. I suspect the Pope’s message will take time to filter down as the leadership reassess their priorities.
The church in Ireland is trying to adjust to such a fundamental change that it is introspective, and is frightened to speak out, but there is renewal going on at parish level, I feel. And some priests have found the Pope’s words liberating. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has probably welcomed it, as being consistent with his set of priorities and style of leadership.
The church has a glorious history in the developing world. In the seventies and eighties, it stood alongside the poor; there was certainly support for those in Latin American countries who were struggling against dictatorship, and human rights abuses. But since that time, the church has retreated because of the impact of Pope John Paul 2nd and Pope Benedict. Both set up very conservative appointments, and the Catholic church was outflanked by the evangelical churches.
The other phenomenon, in Latin America, is that those joining the priesthood were extremely conservative. I remember asking to meet liberation theology priests there, and meeting men in their eighties and nineties. They were lamenting the blunting effect of such conservatism on the church’s voice for social justice.
The same is true in many other countries. Social justice, once strong, was diminished under the last two Popes but there is a turning of the tide. Now a voice for justice for, and on behalf of, the poor is being encouraged from Rome, rather than being seem to be discouraged. That is significant and is greatly to be welcomed.
Eamonn Meehan, CEO of Trócaire
Many of the statements Pope Francis has made have resonated strongly with Trócaire. He has spoken of the need to reduce inequality, to protect the environment and of the dangers of seeing people as economic units.
When Pope Francis speaks of the need to tackle hunger, exploitation and inequality, he gives a powerful message of our responsibility to bring justice to the almost one billion people who go hungry each day, and the many more who live in constant poverty. To see the Pope washing the feet of young prisoners is hugely powerful and reminds us all of our duty to help the marginalised and vulnerable among us.
His call for clergy to involve themselves in the lives of the poor is reflective of what we see in our work, not only amongst the missionaries who dedicate their lives to helping poor communities, but also amongst the clergy here in Ireland who do so much to communicate the work of Trócaire to their congregations.
The fact that Pope Francis comes from a country which has had deep troubles in the past means that he has an understanding of social justice. He has used this understanding to communicate beliefs which are central to Catholic Social Teaching.
He said Mass on the island of Lampedusa, remembering the thousands of Africans who have lost their lives trying to reach Europe. The significance of this poignant act was tragically driven home recently when over 250 people were killed trying to reach Lampedusa.
He has also spoken about the need for solidarity with the people of Syria. Pope Francis’s calls for diplomacy and dialogue to end the war in Syria were heard around the world and offered a powerful alternative to calls for military intervention.
Much of what Pope Francis has said is reminiscent of the pastoral letter issued by the Bishops of Ireland in 1973 when they founded Trócaire. This pastoral letter urged people in Ireland to never close their eyes or hearts to the needs of the world’s poor, and spoke of the structural injustices that leave some rich and others poor.
Forty years on, Trócaire continues to give this message. Pope Francis’s statements have been inspiring and have given us great courage to continue to do the work we do.
John Mark McCafferty, Head of Social Justice at St Vincent de Paul. `
Whilst St Vincent de Paul is not a manifestation of the Catholic Church, we are a Christian organisation with a Catholic background, and many of our volunteers would see their involvement as faith in action. And certainly their actions counter poverty in a very practical sense.
At St Vincent de Paul we are trying to assist people to break out of their levels of dependence; by means of education or training, so there is a strong element of social justice. Everything Pope Francis is saying is very much congruent with what we believe. He appears to embody the aspiration of a church for the poor, opting for the interest of people who are marginalised.
After five years of recession, poverty is more entrenched in Ireland. People feel helpless, and long term unemployment is a bigger issue. Most of our clients are people we already helped in the good times, with our largest group being lone parents. There is a great deal of intergenerational poverty.
I think many of our clients feel a dislocation with the hierarchal style of the church. This has been a challenge in Ireland for a generation or more. A clerical church sits better among high income groups.
I think in the past the church went for a charitable model rather than a social justice model. They would donate, so putting a sticking plaster on the problem, rather than asking ‘What is a just level of tax?’ ‘What is a just level of social expenditure?’ My saying that may well raise the ire of many of the faithful, who will say, ‘You are raising a political agenda.’ I don’t think this attitude is such an issue elsewhere.
The church has a choice. Are we going to be a small church full of rules and regulations, or a much broader embracing realm which is about the dignity of the person, and their needs and vulnerabilities? It can remould, and hopefully Francis’s papacy will bring about a shift.
Hopefully the church will recognise that charity can very naturally coexist with justice. It can negotiate its role within the state and facilitate society to assist people to reach their full potential. We need communities, the state and the church to redistribute resources.
Father Gerry O’Connor. A Redemptorist priest based in Cherry Orchard, and founder of SERVE.
Pope Francis is an inspiration. I carry his first papal homily around with me. He took an old testament scripture passage and made it relevant and practical. It was to reach out to people and to be with them in their daily struggles and anguish. Cherry Orchard is an area with significant economic challenges. His message spelt out all it means to be a practitioner of the gospel in the local community.
Traditionally the church in Ireland has a good track record for responding to social problems. Where there was a lack of educational services, they delivered them. Where there was a lack of health services they delivered and they took the call to be of service to the poor seriously. Many people and organisations achieved social inclusion by reaching out to people on the margins. I think Ireland did better than most countries.
In the last twenty to thirty years we have been lacking in both resources and personnel. The church should have let go of hospitals and schools in order to free up money and people to work with emerging social problems. The traditional way to help the poor is to give them charity. We do that well. But I think we need involvement at policy level too. The church should become involved in resident’s associations, and regeneration initiatives. There should be a representative to work alongside political parties and trade unions. I have tried to do that in Cherry Orchard.
I have witnessed poverty in Africa and other poor regions through my work with GOAL in the eighties, and through my involvement with SERVE. The Irish Missionary movement has a very proud history. It went to rural areas and difficult urban areas where others refused to go. But outside the Irish story you get a more mixed cocktail. In Africa there are examples of deep commitment, but also of indifference. Of the church providing charity without trying to solve the structural problems. You see the church being friendly with the elite, rather than being an advocacy for change.
Pope Francis felt the church had begun to look inwards and not outwards. In Ireland, the leadership had begun to embrace Pope Benedict’s idea of, ‘let us be small, but a beacon of light to the world.’ Francis feels the church is part of a spiritual family that is generous in its understanding of humanity. And there is a bit of resistance.
Many people feel that if the church is to survive and thrive here, there should be a strong emphasis on catechistical education in order to secure membership from the next generation. Pope Francis’s idea is that we should reach out to everybody, and that nominal Catholics are entitled to the same services as the devout and dedicated. This is a significant change.
Pope Francis’s words are like a pat on the back for all the work we have been doing in Cherry Orchard. We had begun to feel that we were doing something wrong or odd, because what we were at seemed different to the values emerging under the last pontiff.
William Browne. Works for SERVE as a fundraiser.
I was first a volunteer for SERVE five years ago, and have been working for them for the past three years. I volunteer every summer, and I am also developing aid. I welcome Pope Francis’s papacy. He is an identifiable role model for a non materialist world, and how you can gain happiness through simplicity.
I have been to the Philippines, to Africa and Mozambique. At SERVE our priority is to support children, women and young people. We find programmes which will provide education and skills for people. We develop them with partners in the country. In the Philippines we worked with Redemptorists out there, and with Presentation sisters. It’s a shared journey. The symbol of this is the flip-flop.
Each year we sell flip-flop badges. They are made by women in Thailand, and they get the money back when we have sold the badges in Ireland. They have the skills to get out of poverty.
When I fundraise in Ireland, people sometimes ask why they should give to people abroad when Ireland is in a recession. My job is to give people a picture of how life is. And to show them that whilst Ireland is struggling, people abroad have a different level of poverty.
Pope Francis is inspirational in that he shows us the other, less glamorous side of the church. He has great humanity, and by relating the teachings of the bible to daily lives, he is enhancing our understanding of Catholicism in life.
Trish Gallagher, 27, is involved in youth schemes and the pioneers in County Mayo. She is a Volunteer for SERVE.
Pope Francis is brilliant! He is so easy to relate to. In challenging people to live their faith, he is a powerful role model. That really resonates with me. When I was a teenager I was bombarded by messages encouraging me to drink, and it was the example of the people around me who resisted drink that encouraged me to take the pledge. Example has a much bigger impact than words.
In the parish we are getting used to Pope Francis’s vision of Catholicism. I think his example will make a difference to us here. Everyone is inspired by him, and his obvious passion for the poor.
SERVE already carries out his message of focusing on the poor. By volunteering for 12 weeks each summer, we get a sense of the challenges for people abroad, and by living there we are in solidarity with them. I went to South Africa last summer.
In South Africa we had two partners; One was health based. This is much better than catapulting volunteers out there and saying ‘go make a difference.’ If they build a school, who will staff it? Who will make the dinner?
We spent four weeks renovating medical centres and building extensions to schools so that more people could be provided for. When we left one of the partners said, ‘Because of your work, less people will be going to that graveyard over there.’
That was the quantifiable difference, but there were unquantifiable ones too. We spent evenings in an AIDS hospice, telling the patients stories about our families; giving them gossip and making them laugh. We’d paint their nails and their eyes would light up. We can’t define that in a report, but they can’t wait to see us again next year.
© Sue Leonard. 2013.