I was really surprised yesterday evening when I heard the announcement that Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as the new Pope and that he had taken the name of Francis. The Cardinal had not figured in any of the pundit short lists, and even though I had been to Buenos Aires a few times I do not remember ever having seen him or heard his name.
When the new Pope appeared on the balcony overlooking the Piazza San Pietro I thought he looked uncomfortable, almost apologetic as if to say, “I’m here not because I want to be here but only because they elected me”. What followed left me with the feeling, “I really do not know this man, but I like what I saw and heard”.
What impressed me more than anything else was when Pope Francis, before imparting the Papal blessing to Rome and to the world, asked the people to pray for him. The new Pope made a profound bow to the assembled people, and more than 100,000 people maintained a solemn silence for about 20 seconds while they prayed for Francis the Pope.
That simple gesture gave me hope that perhaps now we have a Pope who recognizes the enormous power and talent in the faithful Catholic laity who constitute more than 99% of the Church membership. This is in keeping with the Second Vatican Council which in many ways sought to empower the laity to take an active part in the life and governance of their Church.
Church authorities have been slow to fulfill the decisions of Vatican II in regard to sharing power with the laity. In fact the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that only the clergy are qualified to participate in the governance of the Church (Canon 129). Pope Francis’ humble gesture of respect towards the people raises the hope that he will be willing to engage the enormous talent and power of the Catholic laity at all levels of decision-making in the Church.
Pope Francis comes to the Papacy with the reputation of a man who is like his divine Master in his love of the poor and his caring for them. He lives a simple life in which there is no place for pomp and ceremony or the princely trappings of medieval finery. I think we have every reason to hope that he will bring to the Papacy that same simplicity of life and dedication to the poor.
I am willing to believe that Pope Francis is the kind of Pope the Church needs at this time. I want to believe that he will teach us by word and example that the Church is the Church of all God’s people, not just of the Cardinals and the clergy. I pray that he will be an instrument of God in helping the Church to become what she is meant to be, a loving mother to her children, and a living example to the whole world of God’s love for all humanity.
Recently I came across a book about prayer. I am always on the look-out for books about prayer, but I never read much of them because they leave me frustrated. They are always about different kinds of prayer, techniques of prayer, posture at prayer and all sorts of abstractions about prayer.
This book was different. Its title was ALL YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PRAYER YOU CAN LEARN FROM THE POOR. The author is Louise Perrotta, and the book consists of interviews she had with about 30 people living on the margins of society in Haiti. In the book you hear the poor in their own words speaking about their life and how they talk with God.
One example is two young brothers, Moise and Jean, 11 and 13 year-old, whom the author met as they stood in the food-line waiting to collect the family’s ration for the day. The family lives in a one-room cinder block house that is too small for the seven children, and their only sure meal is the food that the boys bring back from the soup kitchen five days a week. Their parents are unemployed, and the average income in the area is less than $ 1 a day.
The two boys show a real concern for the other members of the family, and their prayers reveal an unquestioning trust in their heavenly Father, whom they address in their native Creole as Bondye. When asked, “What do you say to God when you pray?” Moise says, “I ask Bondye to help my parents and give them courage to keep going”. Jean adds, “I ask Bondye to make me strong so I can keep going to school, so that when I’m older I can help my parents have a better life”.
It is the same story with all the other people interviewed, whether it is Mabel, who finds herself homeless and abandoned at 78 years of age, or Lourdie the 32 year-old widowed mother of five young children. Extreme poverty has simplified their lives and their prayer. They feel powerless, they fear for their very survival, and they have no one to turn to but Bondye who they believe cares for them and will provide for them in their dire need.
Bondye is providing for the poor in Jamaica and Haiti through Food for the Poor which was founded in 1982 by the Mahfood family who owned one of the most successful businesses in Jamaica. I learned about Food for the Poor from Louise Perrotta’s book, and in appreciation of what I read in the book I sent a donation to the organization for the work being done on behalf of the very poor.
In response I received a short film on DVD which highlighted how young children are the most tragic victims of hunger and poverty-related sickness and disease. I was reminded of a 2010 report of the United Nations Children’s Fund which stated that 22,000 children die each day due to hunger and poverty-related diseases.
The UNICEF report stated, “They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world”. Being meek and weak in life these multitudes are invisible to the world in death.
Last Friday in Paris there was a meeting of nations interested in ending the fighting in Syria. A United Nations report stated that during the 16 months of fighting in Syria about 10, 000 people have died. The U.S. Secretary of State solemnly declared that this is “unacceptable” and must stop.
I wonder if anybody at that Paris meeting was aware that during those same 16 months, according to the United Nations own figures, 10,692,000 children in the poorest countries of the world died from hunger and poverty-related diseases.
I pray that the day will soon come when some important Secretary of State at some international meeting will refer to the preventable deaths of so many children and declare solemnly, “This is unacceptable, and we will lead the nations of the world in remedying this tragic situation which shames us all”.
A tiny fraction of what the nations of the world spend on weapons of destruction would be sufficient to end world hunger, provide clean water for everyone on the planet, immunize all children against preventable diseases, and allow all children to receive a basic education.
It is all within our reach. What have we to say to our elected representatives and our leaders? What would the children of Haiti say? What would Bondye say?
There are many stories about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the people who wanted to help her in her work for the poor. I particularly remember the story of the well-dressed young woman who approached Mother Teresa and told her that she wanted to share in her work.
Mother Teresa silently prayed for guidance as she replied to the woman: “Here is how you can share my work. Begin with the sari. Next time you are buying a sari, buy a less expensive one, and the money you save, bring it to me for the poor”. From then on, the woman always bought less expensive clothing and brought the money she saved to Mother Teresa. That woman’s life was changed for good.
Mother Teresa, by her simple suggestion, taught that woman a new virtue, the virtue of living in solidarity with the poor. To be in solidarity with the poor does not mean you have to live among the poor. It means that you keep yourself aware of the poor and needy, and let that awareness influence you in your decisions, especially in your use of money and resources.
Mother Teresa’s formula is very simple: if you have more than you need to live, then spend less on yourself, and share what you save with those who do not have enough to live. I try to be in solidarity with the poor by helping the food pantry and soup kitchen in my neighborhood, and by supporting two other international charities who work for the poor and needy overseas in less developed countries.
Solidarity is a word that is fairly new in Catholic circles. Most people will first remember hearing it as the name of a new trade union formed at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland in 1980 the year after Pope John Paul II visited his native country. But the word had appeared earlier in 1967 in the Encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples).
In that letter the Pope wrote: “There can be no progress towards the complete development of humankind without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity”. Pope Paul went on to explain that this meant people meeting people, nation meeting nation as brothers and sisters, as children of God. “In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of the human race” (n.43).
Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Social Concern) (1987) devoted many words to the need for solidarity among people and nations. He described the imbalance in our world where the greed for profit and the greed for power dominate the relations between people and nations, where the strong exploit the weak, and the strong grow stronger at the expense of the weaker.
The Pope pleaded for solidarity to replace the imperialism and exploitation which hold sway in our world. He insisted that solidarity is not a vague feeling of compassion for the distressed, but a firm determination to do what is necessary so that the goods of this world, which are meant for all, should be shared by all. He added these words: “Avoiding every type of imperialism, the stronger nations must feel responsible for the other nations, based on the equality of all peoples and with respect for the differences” (n.39).
To be in solidarity means seeing yourself not only as a member of a particular family and nation, but as a resident of this earth, responsible not only for yourself but for those whom you can help in any way. As Pope John Paul explained, solidarity means being committed to the common good, “That is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (n.38).
The human race continues to grow in numbers, but no matter how many we are, no matter how varied we may come to be, we are all children of the one human family, brought into being by the Creator in solidarity with all the other inhabitants of our world, composed of the same interstellar dust from which we and everything else in our universe have been formed.