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Revolutionary path of Pope Francis: his challenge to the church!


Pope Francis has, since his elevation about a year ago, captured the imagination of people in different parts of the world. Although celebrated by some, he is questioned by others. His pronouncements and the position in which he is pushing the Church were too much for some people. Rush Limbaugh saw what he was hearing as pure Marxism. To Sarah Palin he sounded ‘kind of liberal’.{{more}} When asked by a group of Belgian students if he was a Communist, as he was accused of being, he said that his preference for the poor was based on the Gospel. His position was that the poor are the centre of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not the first time that Popes have attracted this kind of attention. In 1981, when John Paul II published the papal encyclical ‘On Human Work’, the question was also posed as to whether or not he was a Communist. Even before this, at Vatican II in 1962 Pope John xxiii called for the Church to become involved with the struggles of the poor, since the gospel was one of liberation of the downtrodden from earthly poverty and oppression.

There is, therefore, not a lot that is new about Pope Francis, except that he walks the talk. He wants a Church for the poor, is outspoken, lives a modest life and drives in a vehicle that reflects the image that he is attempting to project. He is even shedding the Church of some of its ostentatious symbols. The positions he has been taking should not be surprising, because they seem to come out of the Liberation Theology that was very common in Latin America in the late 1960s and 70s. Liberation Theology, which grew out of a method of training lay workers, was influenced by the work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and selective parts of Marxism. The term was actually coined by the Peruvian Gustava Gutierrez whose book, The Theology of Liberation, was published in 1971.

Pope Francis is shaking up the Catholic Church not by what he says, but by what he does. His influence and impact will depend a lot on how the laity of the Church responds to his message. A very good example of this was seen recently in the United States of America, where parishioners confronted the Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta and convinced him to sell his US$2.2 million house to follow the example set by the Pope. Archbishop Wilton Gregory apologised to the parishioners and intends to move out shortly from the residence that he had only been occupying for the last three months. The sale of the house will go toward meeting the needs of the Catholic community.

His message, his lifestyle and commitment have attracted not only Catholics, but even persons who are not Christians or not religious. His Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangeli Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis’ that was dedicated to the hierarchy of the Church and to lay persons was geared to provide an understanding of the proclamation of the Gospel “in today’s world.” They are “guidelines that can encourage and guide the whole church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality.”

Pope Francis has been vigorous in highlighting issues relating to economic inequality, manifested in the unequal distribution of wealth that he associates with the tyranny of capitalism that harbours the “idolatry of money.” The inclusion of the poor and the alleviation of poverty are therefore central to his work and he appears to want to ensure that the Church sets an example. In this regard, he denounces the “economy of exclusion” and “inequality that kills.” He asks that we reject a financial system that rules rather than serves. The problems of the poor, he argues, cannot be solved by a “simple welfare mentality,” but “by a better distribution of income.”
He calls on the Lord “to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people and the lives of the poor.” He sees it as essential that government and financial leaders “take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and health care.” He will not apologise for anything he says in spreading his message for he speaks “with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology.” Pope Francis’ message is based on his understanding of the Gospel, which means that the message should go beyond the confines of the Catholic Church and of Catholics. Would the Church accept the message and preach it loud and clear. Will it be outspoken and set an example? Will it speak truth to power?

Clearly there is a lot wrong within his Church that the Pope needs to deal with. He feels, however, that “structural and organizational forms are secondary,” since critical to his project must be a reform of attitude. A challenge is thus thrown out to the Church, one that calls for the inclusion of the poor and sees the poor as central to the Gospel. His is a call to action. The response to his message is based on the reality of a world that has gone astray, with its throwaway culture where anything that does not serve globalisation is discarded. This includes the elderly, children and youth.

He regards it as dangerous “to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric; …realities are greater than ideas.” He targets, particularly… those Christians whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter.” Does any of this have significance for SVG? Should his message not have a special appeal to us?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.