Pope Francis is on the cover of “Rolling Stone”. I guess this is a good thing. He has certainly caught the imagination of many people.
For the record, I am a Pope Francis fan – just as I have been a Pope Emeritus Benedict fan and Bl. John Paul II fan – the popes during my lifetime. I am a fan of the papacy and how each man, weak and limited in his own humanity as he is, brings his own gifts and personality to this institution and it is amazing to see how the Holy Spirit works through each one. It does no good and, in fact, is a disservice to the Church to fall into a “red state”/”blue state” mentality when it comes to the papacy and the current inhabitant of the office. The papacy transcends such misguided and ultimately dull attempts at division.
Recently I was at a church meeting and much was being said about Pope Francis – specifically his simplicity and his call to help the poor. I agree the Pope Francis has certainly highlighted the poor in his pontificate but I think his challenge goes further and I wonder if this is being picked up on or glossed over and, if so, why?
Through words and deeds (many of the latter going viral in the visual world of social media), Pope Francis is preaching not just help for the poor but the willingness to go to the poor. Picture his embrace of the disfigured man in St. Peter’s square. This, I think, is a key element to his appeal. Pope Francis is certainly not opposed to the important work of the parish or Church relief and charitable agencies but neither does he want these to become an end or a wall of separation. I do not think that the Pope would be satisfied if he heard the following statement, “Yes, I support the poor. I give to my parish and Catholic Charities and they help the poor.” I think our Pope would respond by saying, “Yes, that is good but you also go to the poor.” It seems that our current pope does not like any form of “middle-men”; whether they be social, organizational or ecclesial.
Choices and even success have unintended consequences. This being understood, might an unintended consequence of the success of the Church’s relief and charitable organizations be that they can help bolster the illusion (maybe even desire) of being a step removed from the poor and needy? “I can give to the poor yet remain comfortable in my own bubble.” “Yes, there are poor people but there are people whose work it is to see to their needs.”
I find it helpful to apply a term to the pope that I recently heard Prof. Andrea Riccardi (founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio) use; that term is periphery. Pope Francis is a pope of the periphery. This should come as no surprise. The pope himself made allusion to this when he first walked out on the balcony of St. Peter’s to tell the whole Church that the cardinals of the conclave went to the far corners of the world to find the next bishop of Rome! They went to the periphery.
Every city, every town, every society has a periphery. It is where the poor live. It is where people are marginalized and de-humanized. It is the place often overlooked and forgotten and also where people fear to go. Pope Francis is inviting the Church to a gospel awareness that it is just not enough to send money or aid or prayers or good intentions to the periphery. We must go there ourselves! Why? Because Christ is there and wherever Christ is the disciple must follow.
It has been my experience – limited as it is – that the periphery provides (when encountered consistently and authentically) a spiritual antidote to the stultifying effects of worldviews and ideologies turned in on themselves – which are multitude in our day and age. The periphery can awaken one to the wonder of the Kingdom of God rather than the merely comfortable! Again, to paraphrase some insights by Prof. Riccardi, in the periphery we learn that contrary to the dictates of the economy we do not have to substitute competition and rivalry for living together in friendship. In the periphery we realize that the true history of the world often runs hidden and deep rather than in the illusion of the stages of the rich and powerful. In the periphery hope can be found, take root and grow.
The Church must allow herself to be evangelized by the periphery and the poor. They know the suffering Christ.
Last night, in the midst of the latest winter storm to hit the eastern U.S., members of the Community of Sant’Egidio in New York City took a warm meal and friendship to their homeless friends on the streets. These men and women are not spiritual elites, they are not heroes. They are simply disciples seeking to live their faith honestly and joyfully in friendship. Wherever Christ is, there is life and wherever Christ is, the disciple must follow. Pope Francis, as successor to Peter, knows this and he is pointing it out to the whole Church. Hopefully, we will listen and respond to his invitation to the periphery.