The Holy Father visited what the Brazilians call a favela yesterday. We would call it “the ghetto,” or a slum, or a shantytown. We have places like this in our own country, hard places of hard times filled with hard people. The people there aren’t hardened because they are born that way, because all people are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we know they aren’t born that way. Instead, they are hardened by years not only of having to get by on having little to nothing, but by spending their lives seeing the inhumanity of violence and death that so often accompanies extreme poverty.
At least in this country, we have some semblance of an apparatus to provide a roof over the heads of the very poor. Many people aren’t able to take advantage of that, it is true, but it is there. As bad as many of America’s inner cities are, they would be worse without any proper housing. In the favela and in other places like it throughout Brazil and Latin America, what housing exists is often built and maintained by the people who live there, and it lacks things like clean water or a proper sewage system. The Holy Father went to see the poorest of the poor. The Pope’s visit was more than just a symbolic visit to the poor because he is the pope and it was a nice thing to do. Pope Francis-Jorge Mario Bergoglio-lived the reality of care for the very poor every day as Archbishop of Buenos Aries. In truth, he was living in the presence of the poor for many years as a priest, long before he became papabile. So when Pope Francis says to a crowd of the very poor that for believers in Christ “solidarity with the poor is not optional,” we are compelled to listen, even if we have to force ourselves. As the Pope pointed out in his remarks, we are called to a greater solidarity with the poor and with those who suffer, and as Catholics we have no choice in the matter. Throughout this trip, Francis seems to have made it a point to make time for people who are on the margins of any society, those who are ignored. The Holy Father visited drug addicts and those who have been slaves to chemical dependency at a Catholic hospital which specializes in treating them. What’s more, many of the patients at the St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital are what we might call the “indigent poor,” and that means that treatment of the hospital there is free to them, according to media reports. While that is a wonderful example of Catholic solidarity in one sense, the most obvious reality is that, yet again, the Pope chose to spend part of his busy time with some of the most marginalized people in society.
After his trip to the slum, the Holy Father met with youth from his home country of Argentina. Clearly, this Pontiff is an evangelizer in every sense of that word, but he sees the care of the poor and the vulnerable as a critical part of how the Church is supposed to spread the message of Christ. Francis told the youth something that I have already highlighted at least once here at Life At 25, and that is the need to take the faith into the streets.
“What do I hope for from World Youth Day? I hope for a mess … that the Church takes to the streets. That we defend ourselves from comfort, that we defend ourselves from clericalism,” the Pope declared. Francis repeated a theme that has been present from the very beginning of his pontificate, that if we do not live and spread an active faith, the Church becomes nothing more than a non-governmental organization (NGO) and not the spouse of the Lord. It was something that he said in his very first Mass as Supreme Pontiff, and he repeated the theme yet again to young pilgrims from his own country. He said that if we do not bring the Church out into the streets that “the Church becomes an NGO. And the Church cannot be an NGO.” The Pope told these youth that their call to action should be the beatitudes and Christ’s description of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, which reads in part:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'”
While I believe that there are many in the secular news media who are attempting to mold Francis into a Pope of their own making or liking, it is clear that his humility and love for the poor and the worst of the neglected are not things which are being shown to us for a mere press opportunity. It is this genuine love and affection for seemingly everyone he meets which seems to be attracting so many people to Pope Francis, even some who have no love for the Church. However, Francis’ commitment to the neglected of the world comes with only one caveat, and it is a stipulation that he shared with those young people from Argentina, doubtless many of them from his own Archdiocese of Buenos Aries. In all of their efforts to address the needs of the most marginalized of the world, the Pontiff begged the youth not to water down the faith. “Please, do not water down the faith. Stir things up, cause confounding, but do not diminish faith in Jesus Christ,” he told them. In other words, the Pope is saying that care for the poor without spreading the Gospel, or by spreading a diluted faith, is just as uncharitable as if we do nothing at all.
The Holy Father wants us to be ceaseless champions of the poor while we are also tireless soldiers of the Cross.