Tag Archives: Church of the Poor

Romero and the church of the poor

Monseñor Romero was a man of the church. His episcopal motto, taken from St. Ignatius Loyola, was “Sentir con the Iglesia” – “To be of one mind and heart with the church.”


But how that was worked out in his life is, I believe, part of the mystery of the conversions that led a humble man with a great love for the poor from his youth to become an outspoken advocate of the poor, “la voz de los sin voz” – “the voice of the voiceless.”

As archbishop he did not fail to speak against all that he perceived as sin and he suffered for that – even from his brother bishops who did not understand the political dimensions of the Gospel.

In his homily of April 16, 1978, he spoke forthrightly of what the church should avoid.

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin
of the society in which it is being proclaimed –

what gospel is that?
Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,
that’s the way many would like preaching to be.
Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter
so as not to be harassed,
so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,
do not light up the world they live in.
They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd
where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ:
“You killed him!”
Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it.
The gospel is courageous;
it’s the good news
of him who came to take away the world’s sins.


Lord, make of us a courageous church, unafraid to speak the truth in love.




Francis and repairing the church

When I visited Assisi in 1973, one of the first places I went was the church of San Damiano, where Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the cross, “Go! Repair my church, which you can see around you is falling into ruins.”

I overheard an English Franciscan friar explaining this to a few young people. Francis was going through a serious emotional crisis after his experience as a prisoner of war in Perugia after a battle in which Assisi lost. His response was what he needed – to do something physical. His work literally rebuilding the church of San Damiano was a form of physical therapy which helped him heal.


Later that day I went up to the major basilica where Francis is buried. As I marvelled at Giotto’s frescos on the walls of the upper church, I heard a Conventual Franciscan friar explain to a group that Francis got it wrong. He was not called to rebuild the church of San Damiano but to reform the whole church.

I think this friar got it wrong.

Reform of the church begins with the small everyday acts of building up the church. It is, in a way, to show in one’s daily life what a reformed church looks like. It is not to call on the authorities and castigate them (even when that is necessary). There is more.

Leonardo Boff, in Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church, puts it this way:

Francis of Assisi was obedient to the church of the popes, and at the same time he went his own way with the gospel of poverty in his hand and heart. In 1970, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Francis’s no to that type of church [powerful and rich] could not be more radical; it is what we would call prophetic protest”. It does not attack or criticize the dominant style; rather, it simply inaugurates and enacts a new style.

Francis lived the repair of the church – reconstructing San Damiano and other churches, kissing and caring for lepers, becoming one with the little ones of this world and showing others the way of poverty, living Christ amidst wealth and power by living without possessions and sharing God and all that he had with those most in need.

We can repair the church, first and foremost, by being followers of the poor Christ, who healed the sick and raised the dead. We can be a witness to the corruption by living austerely. We can “repair the world” by letting Christ repair us.

This, of course, does not rule out prophetic denunciation. But that must be rooted in a conversion to the God of the poor, so that we may become a poor church, a church of and for the poor.


A bishop of the Church of the Poor

“What do you think?”
Monseñor Leonidas Proaño

Though the Latin American bishops did not have a very pronounced role in the Second Vatican Council, a number of them proceeded to put the reforms of the Council into practice. In November 1965, just before the close of the Council about 39 bishops got together and formulated what has become known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” A translation of an article by Jon Sobrino can be found here.

One of those bishops was the Ecuadoran Leonidas Proaño, who died on August 31, 1988.


After the Council, he proceeded to help in the founding of IPLA, the Latin American Pastoral Institute, which held short training sessions for many priests, including the Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande. After the session he and another Salvadoran, Higinio Alas, spent a month in Bishop Proaño’s diocese of Riobamba. It was there that Higinio was impressed by the persistent question of Monseñor: “What do you think?”

Monseñor Proaño was a great defender of the poor indigenous campesino. They saw him as one who treated them with a deep respect. He often went throughout his diocese wearing a poncho.

Respect was not enough and needed to be shown in social changes. One of the ways Monseñor Proaño did this was a redistribution of the land owned by the church in Ecuador. I don’t know the full details of this but this preceded later government efforts to redistribute land.

All this was based in a deep faith in God, expressed in this Credo:

   “Above all, I believe in God. I believe in God the Father. It is he who has given me life. He loves me infinitely. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. According to God’s plan, he became poor, lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.
“I believe in the [person] that is within me and that is being saved by the Word of God. I believe in the person that is within all of my brothers and sisters because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us. Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope. And for the same reason, I believe in justice. I believe in reconciliation, and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.
“I believe in the poor and the oppressed. I believe that they are tremendously capable, especially in their ability to receive the salvation message, to understand it, and to put it into practice. It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.
“I believe in the church of the poor because Christ became poor. He was born poor, he grew up in poverty, he found his disciples among the poor and he founded his Church with the poor.”

The treasures of the church

DSC07607Saint Lawrence, a deacon of Rome, was not martyred with his bishop, Pope Sixtus. The prefect of Rome knew that he was in charge of the treasures of the church and demanded that he present them to the Roman authorities.

According of one version of the legend, Lawrence, distributed all the goods of the Church to the poor, the ill, and the widows, even selling the sacred vessels. Then he gathered the poor and presented them to the Roman prefect, announcing, “Here are the treasures of the church.”

Needless to say, the prefect was not impressed and proceeded to have Lawrence martyred on a gridiron. The saint seems to have had a sense of humor. After some time over the flames he told his executioners to turn him over since he was done on that side. (Does this qualify St. Lawrence as the patron saint of barbecues?)

All kidding aside, Lawrence knew what was important – the glory of God and the poor.

The glory of God is shown when we gather around the table of the Lord, rich and poor, sharing the Body and Blood of the Lord.

The glory of God is also shown when we gather around the table of the poor where all have a part, where all share the goodness of creation, where, in the words of the Salvadoran martyred Jesuit Rutilio Grande, everyone has a place, a stool, around a long shared table.

The servant of God serves God at the table of the Eucharist and the table of the poor – both are part of our mission, our identity.

Recalling the absolute equality around the Lord’s table, where there are no divisions, we gather around a table where those who have more share so that all may experience the abundance of God’s creation.

This may call for sacrifices, for selling what we have, even what we think we need. It might even mean, as it meant for St. Lawrence, selling the goods of the church to feed the poor.

This is not all that radical. It was mentioned by Pope Saint John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis  [On Social Concern], # 31:

Thus, part of the teaching and most ancient practice of the Church is her conviction that she is obliged by her vocation – she herself, her ministers and each of her members – to relieve the misery of the suffering, both far and near, not only out of her “abundance” but also out of her “necessities.” Faced by cases of need, one cannot ignore them in favor of superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings for divine worship; on the contrary it could be obligatory to sell these goods in order to provide food, drink, clothing and shelter for those who lack these things. As has been already noted, here we are shown a “hierarchy of values” – in the framework of the right to property – between “having” and “being,” especially when the “having” of a few can be to the detriment of the “being” of many others.

That is the witness of St. Lawrence, as it is the witness of many saints, recall the example of St. Dominic who sold his books to feed the poor in time of famine.

The question then is how can we truly serve God and the poor, recognizing the real treasures of the Church.

The image is from a holy card designed by Ade Bethune. A collection of her works is at St. Catherine University.



A church of the poor

Pope Francis surprised many early in his first weeks as pope when he urged that the Church for “a poor church, a church for the poor.”

But his words should call us back to an earlier pope who called the Church to be a “church of the poor.”

Pope St. John XXIII came from humble origins.  He is reported to have said: “Born poor, but of honored and humble people, I am particularly proud to die poor.

A church of the poor identifies with the poor, identifies with their struggles, identifies with their hopes and their frustrations. It is a church walking with the poor.

It is good that the Church is a church “for” the poor, taking into account their needs and concerns.

But there is the danger that a church “for” the poor may look down at the poor with pity and think that is has the solutions for their plight.

That is a danger for all of us. Will we just do things for the poor or will we risk walking alongside them, sharing their struggles and their joys?

I recently read Lee Rainboth’s The Grinder: One Community’s Journey Through the Pain and Hope from the Great Haiti Earthquake,  his account of living in a Haitian community before, during, and after the 2010 earthquake.

What struck me was his willingness to be a part of the community, not someone trying to save it. But he did recognize that he did have an advantage that he could offer to the people – a chance to tell their stories which helped them move out of the desperation and paralysis that the earthquake provoked.

One way of putting this is that he enabled the people to recover – perhaps for the first time – their voice. He also helped them recover their sense of their power, partly by his art work with the people.

A church of the poor will not provide solutions for the poor; it will not throw money at projects, though it will share its resources in a way that enables all to work together.

Lee has a paragraph at the end of his book that I think might help us understand the challenges of being a church of the poor, not just for the poor.

Haiti had all the resources that it needed at its fingertips to recover on its own.   They could have rebuilt their own country.   They may have appreciated some advice on how to put all of the pieces together but now they’ll never know how.   A new country cannot be bought in the street, it must be rebuilt.   But because of all of the promises of what billions of dollars could buy, they’ve lost faith in those resources that they had and been shown that they have no value.   And that destruction of faith in one’s own self-worth, or collective worth as a country, is much more impossible to rebuild than buildings made of cement.


If you want to buy Lee’s book, buy the paperback. The Kindle edition does not have the art work!

Full disclosure: I know Lee and met him once in Ames, Iowa.

A call within a call

Today is Inspiration Day for the Missionaries of Charities. On September 10, 1946, Sister Agnes, while on a train to Darjeeling, India, experienced a call from the Lord.

This Albanian woman had been a Sister of Loreto for several years, teaching in India. But that day she felt that God wanted “more” from her:

He wanted me to be poor with the poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.

She left the security of her convent and sought out those most in need in India, especially responding to the dying.

Others soon followed and the Missionaries of Charity were founded. Sister Agnes became Mother Teresa.

Conversion is not a one-time event, but a continuing call from the Lord to be “more” – “magis,” as St. Ignatius of Loyola might put it. God wants us always to be “more,” so that we can live more in Love.

Jesuit philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan has written about six different types of conversion: religious, theistic, Christian, ecclesial, moral, and intellectual. These types are useful to understand the various ways we are called out of ourselves.

I haven’t read enough of him to know if he has included what I would suggest is another “type” of conversion, the conversion to the poor, the conversion that Mother Teresa began on that train to the foothills of the Himalayas.

I am here in Honduras because I experienced such a call to conversion.

During a service trip to post-Katrina New Orleans in March 2006, I felt that I was being called to something more.

It came while we emptied the house of a sixty-three year old African-American woman who had raised children and grandchildren in that house. As we carried out all her possessions, she maintained a calm, a resilience that I had not often seen up close. And it was based in her faith in God.

I now say that, as we emptied out her house, something was emptied out in me, enabling me to experience a call that brought me here to Honduras.

My spiritual director at the time, as well as a good friend, asked me why I felt called to Honduras. My immediate response was “to serve those most in need.”

And so today I need to recall what inspired me to come here – and to renew my commitment “to be of service to those most in need.”

May all of us respond to the call to accompany the poor, to serve them, to be not only “a poor church and a church for the poor,” as Pope Francis has called us to be. Should we not also be “a church of the poor,” as Pope John XXIII wished.

Witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence

On March 18, 1989, two witnesses for the poor and nonviolence died in an auto accident in Perú: Father Neptalí Liceta, indigenous priest and coordinator of SERPAJ-Peru (the Latin American nonviolent action network), and Sister Amparo Escobedo, Sister of Social Service.

Father Neftalí once wrote:

“In the struggle for liberation in Latin America today, and the painful search for peace with justice, by following the option of Jesus Christ for the poor, we are making a definitive choice for the nonviolence of the cross that leads to resurrection. We must not be ignorant of, nor hide, nor attempt to legitimate the situation in which we are living if we are to be faithful disciples. To the contrary, we must denounce injustice constantly and clearly, and continually revise our goals and objectives. Nonviolence in Latin America implies noncooperation, whether internal or external, with every aspect of the existing unjust system.”

People like Padre Neftalí and Sister Amparo are lights that show what the Reign of God might be like. May their example inspire us to live lives of nonviolence and solidarity with the poor.

Speaking out clearly and forcefully against injustice is not easy and has not been easy, especially in Latin America where thousands have been killed. In the face of the violence and repression the Church has often failed to speak clearly and forcibly. But there have always been thousands of witnesses, usually among the priests and religious who work directly with the poor.

There have been some bishops who have spoken out and been killed for their efforts, not only Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, but also Bishop Enrique Angelleli of La Rioja, Argentina, who was killed on August 4, 1976, in a suspicious car accident during Argentina’s Dirty War.

These martyrs of Latin America lived as a Poor Church and a Church for the poor, as Pope Francis hopes. They also sought a Church of the Poor – where the poor are central, even as participants.

May these martyrs of Latin America continue to inspire us to be light for the nations, witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence – seeking to be a Church of the Poor.