Sunday, 25 August 2013

Pope Francis: Changing Attitudes

I've been reading the extracts in "The Tablet" from Paul Valley's fascinating book "Pope Francis: Untying the Knots".

It is interesting to see how conservative Jorge Bergoglio (his name before he took on the title Pope Francis I) was when he was younger. The trappings of power, and the use of power for control, and clamping down on anything that was not doctrinal orthodoxy were his key notes when he was in charge of some of the South American Jesuits.

Father Velasco noted that "Berglogli was so very conservative that I was rather shocked years later when he started talking about the poor. Something changed." The Pope's old friend, Rabbi Ambraham Skorka said that "he has changed according to his life's experiences". In a rare interview with Argentinian journalists, he admitted to "hundreds of errors" when pushed into leadership roles in the Jesuits when younger. He also told Skorka that "guilt, without atonement, does not allow us to grow".

It seems that it was his experiences in the Buenos Aires slums that changed him so much, working alongside the poor, seeing them not just as objects of philanthropy, but as people needing "not charity but justice". Over 15 years as "Bishop of the Slums", he changed. Father Marco, at his side for eight years, said "He doesn't see the poor as people he can help, but rather as people from whom he can learn". And during his 18 years as bishop and archbishop, one priest estimated that he must have personally talked to at least half the people in the slum. Apparently, he would just wander the alleyways, chat to the locals, drink herbal tea with them.

That doesn't mean that he didn't help, of course - an example is how he helped a group of slum dwellers who made a living sorting through the cities garbage to find and sell recyclable materials - he helped them form a union and turn the work into something from which they could make a decent living. And at the same time, he came to see the reason why the liberation theologians, whom he had opposed as a conservative young leader, wrote as they did. He has asked Leanardo Boff to send him his writings on eco-theology for an encyclical he is considering on environmental matters.

It is a different kind of attitude, to not see the "deserving poor", but to see the poor at the heart of the gospel. I am reminded of St Francis, embracing the leper, taking on his fear, and changing as a result. The Victorian philanthropists did great works for the poor, but with a very different model: they wanted to control the worker's lives, and make them more moral, to project their own morality onto the poor. It is an attitude we find in the Church giving out hot food and drink that George Orwell described in "Down and Out in London and Paris":

"We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea; it was a one-pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the
cheek to go."

"The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette."

Orwell noted that poor people often resent this kind of philanthropy; they need it, but it robs them of their self-respect:

"The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps--from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor--it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it."

That's also true in Jersey, when under Parish Welfare, I knew of elderly people who needed welfare payments, but would not go because they felt it was undignified to do so. It seems strange but true.

Pope Francis clearly understands this very well. His call is not just for helping the poor, but a change of mindset from a throwaway culture to one where human dignity is important; we do not just give to the poor the crumbs from our table. Like St Francis of Assisi meeting the leper, it is a truth that in encounter, we see the human face of God, not just statistics for charitable giving. It is at the heart of the gospel.

His address in Rio de Janeiro is a case in point:

"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!"

"We must never, never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts! We must never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts, because we are brothers and sisters. No one is disposable! Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! Think of the multiplication of the loaves by Jesus! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!"

"I would also like to tell you that the Church, the "advocate of justice and defender of the poor in the face of intolerable social and economic inequalities which cry to heaven" (Aparecida Document, 395), wishes to offer her support for every initiative that can signify genuine development for every person and for the whole person. Dear friends, it is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry - this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy, the hunger for dignity."

"You young people, my dear young friends, you have a particular sensitivity towards injustice, but you are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good. To you and to all, I repeat: never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it with good. The Church is with you, bringing you the precious good of faith, bringing Jesus Christ, who "came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10).

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