In an address given on May 16, Pope Francis said that “we have created new idols” and challenged his audience to transform the “cult of money” which creates grave inequality. “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling,” he stated. “Human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away.”
On May 18, Pope Francis spoke again of the poor, challenging us to “step outside of ourselves” and seek those most in need. “It breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news…this is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way,” he said to the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square.
These are two of several occasions when our new pope has spoken powerfully and prophetically about poverty. His first encyclical will be on the same these and will likely be titled “blessed are the poor.” Pope Francis’ focus on poverty and concern for the poor have deep roots in the life of St Francis as well as in Jesuit spirituality. Francis is famous for his zealous embrace of poverty and rejection of wealth, dramatically shown in grand personal gestures, as well as through his teachings forbidding his brothers to touch money or to own personal possessions. St Ignatius wrote of seeing “Jesus standing in the lowly place” in his meditation on two standards, a challenge to seek God on the margins rather than in the center of privilege and power.
However, Pope Francis’ focus on poverty grows not only out of his Ignatian and Franciscan roots, but out of his pastoral experience visiting the slums of Argentina, which serve as a mirror of our current global reality. The richest 20% in the world receive 82.7% of global income, while the poorest 20% receive only 1.4%. The countries that were once referred to as “third world” are now called by some the “two-thirds world,” which recognizes the reality that two-thirds of the world’s more than seven billion people live in poverty. The human cost of this income inequality is mind-boggling. Lack of access to basic health care, education, and security lead to shortened life spans and severely compromised quality of life for so many of our fellow human beings on this planet.
Pope Francis has accurately described the reality as follows: “the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences… People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way.” These are realities which are relatively easy to ignore for those who us who live a middle-class American existence. We don’t have to think about the young Chinese factory worker who assembled our iPhone, of the undocumented Mexican farm worker who harvested the produce we buy at the supermarket, of the Bolivian campesinos who picked the coffee that we drink each morning, of the laborers who are behind the “Made in Bangladesh” label on our clothing. While our lives are more and more connected in a global economy, we in the American middle class can reap the benefits of low prices while closing our eyes to the human cost. Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has rightly described the poor as no-persons or non-persons. They are seen merely as providers of cheap labor in the world market, if they are seen at all.
For those of us who endeavor to follow Jesus, Pope Francis’ words are a reminder of both our faith tradition’s call to concern for those on the margins as well of the stark inequalities of our world today. Francis’ words are an invitation to grow in solidarity, opening our eyes and our hearts rather than throwing up our hands in despair. Another Jesuit, Greg Boyle, has said that “the beatitudes is not a spirituality, it’s a geography. It’s about where you stand.” To stand with the poor, to recognize their humanity, to see them as persons rather than non-persons, is a profoundly courageous counter-cultural stance. Only three months into his papacy, Francis has consistently shown himself to be a leader who stands with the poor both in his words and his actions. We can hope and pray that his bold example will inspire leaders within and beyond the church to take a similar stand, and can discern what practical steps each of us can take to stand with the poor as well.