How to Create a Church of the Poor

“This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.” –Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, December 6, 1962.

“How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.” –Pope Francis, March 16, 2013.

As we close in on the end of the first year of Francis’ papacy, we are drawing closer to a Church of the Poor. We are finding unexpected beauty because Pope Francis is helping us explore the totality of what it means to be poor. Poverty doesn’t just have economic and ethical dimensions, but is at the heart of the sacramental mystery we are called to live. We follow a God whose decisive action in history was to become poor, to be with all of us, in the many types of poverty we all experience, but, particularly, socioeconomic poverty. To focus on social justice at the exclusion of the mystery and beauty of the Church is to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, but to focus on the mystery and beauty of the Church at the exclusion of working for social justice is to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ.

When reflecting upon this, I came across a powerful speech given by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna during the first session of the Second Vatican Council. It had an electrifying effect on the listeners as they began to envision how a Church of the Poor could be created. Particularly for Latin Americans, it became a reference point for how to implement Vatican II. As it was then, today the speech is still spellbinding. (Note: this is my translation, based on a Spanish translation of an Italian text, graciously provided to me by Spanish-Latin American theologian Teófilo Cabestrero).

If we can draw any conclusion from the end of this session of our council, it is this: two months of toil and truly generous, humble, free, and fraternal searching, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, have led us to understand better what Vatican II should bring to the people of our time to illuminate their hearts with a light of truth and grace. What we should bring to them, without a doubt, is the intimate mystery of the Church as the “great sacrament” of Christ, the Word of God that is revealed, inhabits, lives, and acts among men and women.

However, we all feel that the Council has lacked something until now: many precious elements remain fragmented without having yet found a vivifying and unifying principle.

Where will we find that vital impulse, that soul, let’s say that fullness of the Spirit? Only through a supernatural act of obedience by each of us and of all the Council to a sign that is becoming increasingly clear and imperative. This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.

I. First of all, I agree with what Cardinal Suenens asked about, and with the clarifications made yesterday by Cardinal Montini [later Pope Paul VI] about the purpose of this Council, the agenda of future work, the order and focus of issues, and, above all, the necessity of a doctrine De Ecclesia(…).

II. But the more specific purpose of my speech is to call attention, even more than has already been done, to an aspect of this mystery of Christ in the Church, which I think is not only perennially essential, but also of supreme current historical relevance. What I mean is that the mystery of Christ in the Church has always been—but today even more so—the mystery of Christ in the poor. Inasmuch as the Church, as the Holy Father John XXIII has said, is indeed the Church of all, today it is especially “the Church of the Poor.”

Reading the analytical index of the framework that was distributed to us yesterday, this gap startled me: in the matters that have been submitted or will be submitted for our consideration and discussion, this essential and primary aspect of the mystery of Christ has not been taken into account in the conscious and explicit way that our historical context makes necessary: the aspect foretold by the prophets as an unmistakable sign of the consecration and messianic mission of Christ (Is 61:1-2 and Lk 4:18); the aspect magnified by the same mother of the Savior in the incarnation of the Word (Lk 1:52-53); the aspect promulgated by the birth, childhood, hidden life, and public teaching of Jesus (Lk 1-4); the aspect which is the fundamental law of the Kingdom of God; the aspect that conditions the entire flow of grace and the life of the Church, from the apostolic community until the hours of the best interior renovation and expansion outside of the Church (Acts 2: 44-45, 4:32-35; 2 Cor 8:9-14); the aspect, ultimately, which will be sanctioned for eternity with reward or punishment in the glorious coming of the Son of God at the end of times. (Mt 25:31-46.)

III. Because of this, in concluding the first phase of our Council, I think we have a duty to solemnly recognize and proclaim that we will not do our duty, nor will we know how to understand the will of God and the hope of men and women for this Council, if we do not center the doctrinal teaching and work of salvation of the Church on the mystery of Christ in the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor.

This is the most clear, most concrete, most relevant, and most imperative duty of a time when, more than any other, the poor do not seem to be evangelized and their hearts seem distant and foreign to the mystery of Christ in the Church. And this in an era in which, on the other hand, human consciousness is questioning and investigating with anxious and dramatic questions the cause of poverty and the destiny of the poor as individuals and as peoples who are becoming newly conscious of their rights. This in an era in which the poverty of so many (two thirds of humanity) is an affront to the excessive wealth of the few, and in which, as never before, poverty is feared and despised by the instinct of the multitudes.

IV. But by pointing out—as others have done—the problem of the evangelization of the poor, I do not intend to add yet another topic to the very long list of topics that the Council has to study.  I feel the duty to say that we will not respond to the deepest and truest exigencies of our time, including our great hope of promoting the unity of all Christians—but rather elude them—if we let the Council deal with the problem of evangelization of the poor of our time as one topic added to the other topics. We are not dealing with one topic, but, rather, in a certain sense, the only topic of Vatican II.

If, as I have said several times—including yesterday—in this hall, the subject of this Council is the Church, we can and should clarify that the formulation most in conformity with the eternal truth of the Gospel and the most appropriate for our current historical situation is this: the theme of the Council is the Church inasmuch as it is particularly the Church of the poor, of all the millions and millions of the poor individually, and of the poor peoples of the whole earth collectively.

V. With the principal and immediate object of the Council specified in these terms, let me make some concrete proposals in view of the work of the next session:

1) That in the work that the Council undertakes from now on, the formulation of the evangelical doctrine of the holy poverty of Christ in the Church find not only a place, but the primary place: the mystery of the divine election that has chosen poverty as a sign and a mode—sacramentum magnum, dico, in Christo et in ecclesia (Eph 5:32)—a preferential sign and mode of the presence and operative and salvific force of the Word Incarnate among men and women.

2) That in our work we give priority to the development of the evangelical doctrine of the eminent dignity of the poor as members of the Church, because they are the members in whom the Word of God Incarnate preferentially hides the radiance of his glory to the end of times.

3) That in all our work and in the new direction of our framework—as many urge—we always make clear and present the very close ontological connection that exists between the presence of Christ in the poor, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that constitutes and provides the foundation of the Church, and the presence of Christ in the hierarchy that teaches and pastors the Church. These are three aspects of one sole mystery.

4) That in every practical problem of the renewal of ecclesiastical institutions and forms of evangelization, we always keep in mind and strive to clarify the historical connection between sincere and consistent recognition of the eminent dignity of the poor in the Kingdom of God and the Church, and the realism of the possibilities and limits of evangelization in our time, including new forms and methods to men and women of our age.

5) If we are obedient to the call of Providence that makes us affirm and seek the primacy of evangelization of the poor, it will not be difficult, with the help of the Spirit of the Lord and of Mary, when considering each practical and doctrinal issue, to find an “authentic” mode of fully presenting—without any trimming—God’s eternal and immutable Gospel. This can be presented in such a way that there will be a union of the human family just as the Father and Christ are one. It will touch hearts and fill with hope the people of our time, especially the poor in the Church of Christ, who being rich became poor in order to enrich us with his grace and glory. (2 Cor 8:9.)”

For further reading, Teófilo Cabestrero’s article, The Primacy of the Poor in the Mission of Jesus and the Church: The Influence of Vatican II in the Episcopal Magisterium at Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo, is excellent. It is available by freely downloading Getting the Poor Down from the Cross.