Within days of his election as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis shared the story of how he came to choose the name of Francis of Assisi in speaking to representatives of the world’s communication media gathered at Vatican City. In that context, Francis said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” This short phrase, entirely in accord with his talk at that occasion, caught the attention of the world’s media and of millions more (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/16/pope-francis-church-poverty).
These words stood out for most Catholics, and for followers of many other denominations and faiths, as words of hope. I think they are words of hope as they are heard, in part, because of how difficult it is for the church, as an institution, to make real and present the spirit of Jesus, who walked the roads of ancient Israel asking nothing for himself, describing himself and his life in these words: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NRSV). To hear an echo of that spirit from the person in charge of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly as the spirit and style of a ministry is being determined in its first hours, catches people’s attention.
It’s important to recall, lest the hearers shortly hereafter begin to doubt the reality and possibility of those words of Pope Francis, that in expressing this desire this man stands in a long tradition. In 1964, while the second Vatican Council was still ongoing, French Dominican and ecclesiologist Yves Congar (1904 – 1995) published a slim volume entitled Power and Poverty in the Church (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Poverty-Church-Yves-Congar/dp/B0000CM9T2). Its preparation was inspired by the discussions then being heard both within the Council and outside it, from trattoria tables in Trastevere to breakfast tables in the Irish countryside. What was being heard, and having an effect, were words like those of John XXIII, spoken to the Diplomatic Corps the year before, and quoted in Congar’s Foreword:
It is the spirit that counts more than the gesture; and this lesson does not apply to the leaders of the church alone: every position of power, every exercise of authority, is a service. The Pope gladly calls himself Servus servorum Dei; he is conscious of being, and strives to be, the servant of all. God grant that those who bear the burden of responsibility for the human community may take to heart this last great lesson of Maundy Thursday, and recognize that their authority will be all the more acceptable to their people for being exercised in a spirit of humble service and complete devotion to the welfare of all men.
That ‘last great lesson’ of Maundy Thursday is the lesson of humble service preserved in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel. There, at his last meal with his beloved, Jesus gets down on the floor and washes their feet. He acts as the servant of all. And then he speaks quite clearly of what this act implies: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 NRSV). John XXIII, in embracing this service as his own call, reminded the representatives of the world’s governments that they, no less than he, are similarly charged. He is saying that the church, as the presence of Christ, must be the poor servant of all and, in doing so, give example to all who exercise authority or power. Or control vast sums of money which, in this world, are equivalent to power.
In the body of his book Congar, a master of the church’s self-understanding through the centuries, writes of the influence of the Roman Empire upon the post-Constantinian church, and of the lingering vestiges of the way things were done in feudal times. In two brief segments, however, he places that history and past ways of being in the context of the mid-20th century and says, “Men [and women] want the truth of the Gospel, its authenticity and simplicity, and on those conditions they are ready to accept its demands ungrudgingly. We can no longer hope to dazzle men with purple and gold, heraldry and titles ending in ‘-issimus’. He compels us now to show forth in our lives the truth of what we profess to believe and love with all our heart. Who can complain of that?”
For Congar, and for many church leaders at that moment in time (as he reveals in a catena of quotes from Council Fathers that he includes as an appendix to his work), “In a world that has become, or has become again, purely ‘worldly”, the Church finds herself forced, if she would still be anything at all, to be simply the Church, witness to the Gospel and the kingdom of God, through Jesus Christ and in view of him. That is what men need, that is what they expect of her. In fact if we listed all their most valid claims on the Church we should find that they amounted to this: that she be less of the world and more in the world; that she be simply the Church of Jesus Christ, the conscience of men in the light of the Gospel, but that she be this with her whole heart.”
The heartfelt appeal of Pope Francis, as well as this confirmation in the words of John XXIII, Yves Congar, and many others in the 1960’s stand in a long line of seemingly occasional, but always dramatic and appreciated responses to an oft-ignored message at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Anthony of the Desert (251 – 356 AD) walked into church in the year 269 as these words of Matthew’s Gospel were being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony took these words to mean just what they said, and he did exactly that, becoming first a hermit and then the father of monasticism.
Centuries later the present pope’s namesake from Assisi heard a sermon on the 10th chapter of the same Gospel, including these words of Jesus as he sent the Twelve out on mission: “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” He too took Jesus at his word, and that changed everything.
The founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, stands in that same line. So too does the 20th century Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 – 1945). A Russian revolutionary spirit, married twice, she converted deeply to the Gospel of Christ and reached out in Paris to provide everything she could in the name of Jesus to Russian emigres and others in need, asking nothing for herself. She died in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck on Holy Saturday, 1945.
To return to John XXIII words, “it is the spirit that counts more than the gesture,” though both spirit and gesture carry unique power when they are inspired by the Gospel itself. What does a “Church which is poor and for the poor” look like, sound like, move like? Does it mean some measure of divestiture, of traditions which are not central to the Gospel, or of goods and property? Perhaps. But perhaps whether it means that or not, it must mean something even deeper, something fundamental to the church’s very being. Is it not a call to be more faithful to the person of Jesus Christ than to anything or anyone else? Before Anthony of the Desert, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria or Dom Helder Camara of Brazil; before Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, or any of the innumerable unnamed and unknown who heard the Word and responded as inspired, there was the first poor man, Jesus. His church is, to use the old church language, ecclesia pro parvulis.