by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
A second goal in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ seven-year plan calls attention to “The Cry of the Poor”. That is, the cry to defend vulnerable human life from conception to death and equally important the defense of all forms of life on earth.
In typically “Francisco” fashion, this goal is pursued from the position of a preferential option for the poor. When the pope speaks of vulnerable human life, he is principally concerned about realities like marginalized people, indigenous communities, migrants, children at risk due to trafficking etc. It is a question of seeing not just looking, engaging in social analysis and advocating for a post-pandemic world which envisions the “new normal” from the viewpoint of the poor — from their side of life.
This “bias” is not particularly or uniquely Pope Francis’s. It is deeply rooted in Christian/Catholic spirituality. Take for example the dramatic return of Jesus to Nazareth at the outset of his public ministry when he announces that the Spirit has sent him to “preach the good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). All of his actions thenceforth demonstrate a response to this demand of the Spirit as he unfailingly operates from the “outside”, opting for the poor, the marginalized, the shunned.
Catholic/Christians liberation theologians speak of the “irruption of the poor” (a bursting in, an outbreak) which challenges the rest of humanity, calls for an option. They hold that no one can remain indifferent to their “irruption” and call themselves followers of Jesus.
Modern Catholic social teaching (CST) makes that same demand. Whatever the content of the subject matter addressed in CST (be it labor relations, nuclear weapons, international relations, climate change, education, or Church life itself), there is a common thread – how that particular issue affects the poor of the earth.
We have a great example of this in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples). Writing about the aim of development, the pope says: “The goal is to build a world … where the poor man Lazarus can sit down at the same table with the rich person” (#47). The pope uses Jesus’s parable to connect a personal option for the poor to a societal one.
In this constant and now global bursting forth of “the cry of the poor”, the response in charity and justice has to include an option for them, a bias toward them, a preference for them. In the language of our Christian/Catholic tradition this is the Christlike attitude to take. Anything less is not acceptable.
As Pope Paul demonstrated, the option is both personal and social. We have a compelling example of these two dimensions in the experience of the Jesuit Community at the University of San Salvador (UCA) during the irruption of the poor into the chronic unjust status quo of that country. In the Jesuits’ personal identification with the impoverished and disregarded masses of El Salvador and the dedication they had to them through the UCA, these men of God showed what the preferential option for the poor looks like in the modern world. From their own personal encounters with poor Salvadorans to every aspect of university life – e.g. openness of the campus for marginalized communities – to the orientation of courses taught there, they left no doubt where their preferences lay.
A final word: From the first days of his pontificate Pope Francis himself has modeled and called for “a poor Church for the poor”. I wonder sometimes what he thinks of the Church in our affluent world. Does he take some solace in the numerous People of God here whose lifestyles and advocacy give evidence of “a poor Church for the poor”? Or does he despair over so many who remain indifferent to “the cry of the poor”? What does he think of our institutional Church in the so-called developed world?
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.