The Pope of the poor.
Pope Francis’ call for tighter solidarity and fraternity with the poor in his newly-published Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is, for me, profoundly instructive. Instructive because never in the history of mankind has poverty wrecked or destroyed so many countries than now. The poor, it is said, are always with us. But the pertinent questions provoked by Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium are: how are we seriously committed to alleviating poverty? Does alleviating poverty only mean giving left-over coins to street beggars? Or, is preferential option for the poor only a slogan preached from church pulpit or from political soap-box just to win cheap popularity?
Contrary to the views expressed by the BBC, CNN and other liberal media, Pope Francis is not calling for the overthrow of the Gospel or the teaching of the Catholic Church in his Evangelii Gaudium: he is merely calling for new ways and initiatives of presenting the same Gospel truth in the light of the profound changes taking place in the world today to make the Gospel more accessible and appealing to the uncountable poor people across the world hungering for the truth. In other words, Pope Francis is not advocating for a watered-down teaching on homosexuality; abortion, ordination of women; apostolic celibacy and all that as the CNN, BBC and other free-thinkers would make us believe. Instead he is advocating for a Church which urgently “brings-forth” the Gospel to the people or a Church which spreads the Gospel to the people in line with St. Paul’s “within season and out of season”. Of course, Pope Francis is not saying anything new which the previous Popes had not said. In fact, Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium draws inspiration from Lumen Gentium; Pope Paul V1’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and his Rerum Novarum; Pope Leo X111’s Octogesima Adveniens and his Gaudete in Domino; Blessed Pope John Paul 11’s Redemptor Hominis, Veritatis Splendour, Evangelium Vitae, Social Concern. And of course, Evangelii Gaudium is inspired by writings of Church Fathers, St. Iranaeus, St. John the Cross and others.
But we must admit that Pope Francis has his own style in presenting the same truth. For example, one day Pope Francis ran into a Swiss Guard stoically standing erect at one place in St. Peter’s Square. Apparently feeling pity for him, Pope Francis asked him, “Have you eaten?”. Not willing to betray any sign of human weakness and fragility as a Swiss Guard of fame, the young man kept moot. At this juncture, Pope Francis swiftly left and came back later with what looked like snacks and offered it to the Swiss Guard. Still unwilling to betray any sign of weakness, the Swiss Guard refused to talk to the Pope let alone eat the Pope’s snacks. It was then that Pope Francis opened his mouth and said to him. “I am your boss and I am telling you to take and eat”. Anyway, to cut the long story short, the Swiss Guard eventually took the snacks from Pope Francis, sat down and ate. For centuries, no Swiss Guard had been caught on duty talking to a Pope let alone eating on duty. But after encountering Pope Francis on that particular day, that Swiss Guard ate and drank on duty probably for the first time in the history of Papal Swiss Guard.
That is Pope Francis for you. He is a simple and a humble man. Whereas a Pope Benedict would focus on confronting what he dubbed the “dictatorship of relativism” headlong; a Pope John Paul 11 might travel far and wide to wage a relentless crusade against socialist communism; but here we have a Pope Francis who, without diffusing the struggle against relativism and communism, is making love for the poor the defining leitmotif of his pontificate. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal sick, visit the prisoner, console the broken-hearted. Prior to his election as Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergloglio, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, freely mingled with the poorest of the poor in Buenos Aires; cooked his own food; did his own laundry; boarded mass-transit buses and so forth. Since his election as Pope he has continued in that fashion. He maintains a low-profile lifestyle. He refuses to live in a luxuriously-furnished apartment detached from the people. He carries his own bag, rides in what we call in Nigeria a “second-hand” or a “third-hand” car and so forth. In Evangelii Gaudium, he condemns what he terms the economy of exclusion, an economy that shuts the poor out from access to economic well-being
But the poverty which Pope Francis is out to tackle goes beyond material poverty as could be gleaned from Evangelii Gaudium. The most deadly forms of poverty in a country are lack of access to social justice; loss of a sense of sin; loss of a sense of what is right and what is wrong; lack of honesty and transparency in government; ignorance, drug addiction, sexual perversion and exploitation, trafficking in human beings and human embryos and so forth. Unfortunately oftentimes we only focus on material poverty forgetting that the aforementioned forms of poverty are more pervasive than material deprivation.
The rhetoric on progressivism is meaningless in a world that pays lip service to preferential option for the poor.