One reason the world has reacted with such joy to the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis is his commitment to the poor. As we have read in many news reports, this is not a purely academic concern on his part.
Pope Francis has put his concern into action. For him, it’s meant a lifetime of living among the poor and interacting with them. It’s meant riding the bus and forsaking the opulent home some feel is a cardinal’s due. His devotion has led him into real relationships with people not as privileged as those who sometimes surround a “prince” of the church.
To many, this is the attitude a leader of our church should have — to be a servant leader, to be one with those who suffer, following the example of Jesus.
News reports indicate Pope Francis has a desire to move forward with the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a man many Latin Americans already regard as a saint and martyr. Romero was considered a fairly conservative choice for archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, where the El Salvadoran ruling elite controlled most of the land and resources. Archbishop Romero was a friend to this elite and felt comfortable among them.
But when his friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, was assassinated for his work with the poor, the archbishop reached a turning point in his life. He became a defender of the poor and a tireless proponent of human rights. He criticized the Marxists and those who sought military solutions, but, at the same time, he opposed the worst of capitalism and the unbridled greed of the oligarchs. He stood firmly with the poor, and for this he was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980.
For Americans, and many Westerners, our attitude toward the poor is rather complex. We often speak condescendingly of “those less fortunate than we are,” write our checks at Christmas, collect some cans for a food drive and drop our used clothing off at a charity.
But we find it cumbersome and confusing to consider the root causes of poverty and to ask why the gap between the rich and the poor grows in the U.S. We prefer to get out the checkbook and feel we’ve done our part. The politics of the thing can grow messy — probably not as messy as it grew for Archbishop Romero, gunned down for his beliefs — but muddled nonetheless.
In Scripture, there is a story about a woman who poured costly oils on Jesus as a form of tribute. Some of the disciples upbraided Jesus for allowing this. Couldn’t the money have been used for the poor?
Jesus makes the comment, “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me” (Mt 26:11).
Some interpret this remark to suggest, oh, yes, there will always be poor people about. But I’ve heard a more striking interpretation of Jesus’ statement: Christ exhorted his apostles, saying, you, because you are my disciples, you will always keep the poor close to you. Always.
In the affluent society in which we live, we sometimes don’t see the poor, or when they are present, we see through them. We often fail to recognize how many of our neighbors require food stamps, or are one misstep away from financial ruin. Our cities are often completely divided into the rich neighborhoods and the poor.
To be a follower of Jesus is to be countercultural. It is to choose simplicity when we’d love to use more and to live in solidarity with those who struggle.