Building a 'poor Church for the poor'

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

One of the first things Pope Francis said on his election was to wish that the Church would be "a poor Church for the poor". What would a poor Church look like, though, and what transformation would be necessary to become such a Church? And can we say we want to be part of this poor Church that the Pope spoke about?

When I look at the Church in Rome, where I find great strength and great support, I don't see a poor Church. My own daughters tell me they are scandalised by the wealth of the Vatican. Yet it is not just us RCs who have ostentatious wealth. Last week I walked past Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury ... a bishop in a palace! I look at my own parish in Wigan where we have two beautiful church buildings, two presbyteries, two sets of parish rooms and a school. I don't see a "poor Church" ... slightly shabby, seen better days perhaps, but not poor.

I look at myself. I have a home, a car, a bank account, savings, etc. Am I living as a member of a poor Church? I look around at the Church in the Archdiocese and wonder how many of us could feel comfortable with that question. Do our lives match the things we say?

And yet, are we actually asked to be poor? Are we required to give away our money and become poor ourselves? Aren't we rather called into solidarity, into a way of thinking and feeling that asks us to treat our possessions as a gift we can share? That is how Jesus lived His life. His kingdom was a place where people thrived, where lives were transformed, where sickness was cured, where the blind could see, the lame could walk and the dead could live again.

Our faith invites us to be part of such a life-giving movement. We can help people out of poverty. We can make a difference. We can put our resources to good use.

When I look around, I see this happening already. Pope Francis installed showers for rough sleepers in Rome and has given a home to Syrian families. The Archbishop of Canterbury has acted similarly, putting some Syrian families into Lambeth Palace. Our Archdiocese is preparing to be part of the Community Sponsorship Scheme. The two cathedrals run the Hope+ food bank. The churches in Liverpool have set up Feeding Liverpool. In short, Church people are involved wherever there is a struggle against poverty.

In January, Rev Raj Patta, a Dalit Lutheran currently studying for his doctorate in Manchester, gave our Memorial Lecture. He said that in our times Reformation translates as Hospitality. I like that. We are called to care and to show that we care and not just for ourselves and our families, but for our neighbour – and we all know what an inclusive word that is for Jesus, and should be for us. The focus of our hospitality should not only be ourselves, our families or people like us but must, instead, include those most in need. We know this as "the option for the poor".

It is good fortune and God's grace that have placed us where we are, rather than some worthiness or virtue of our own. "The poor" is what we would be, were it not for all the support structures that hold us up. I am convinced that "the poor" reflects back to us how fragile we all are.

This realisation is followed by a call to action. We have been helped and we can be part of this virtuous circle of help. We can get involved with national organisations such as CAFOD, Church Action on Poverty, Housing Justice and Pax Christi, or we can volunteer locally with an asylum-seeker organisation, a food bank or a credit Union. That way we can help work with some of the most vulnerable people in our world.