A poor Church for the poor

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

Recently I was asked to lead a workshop on what Pope Francis meant when he said: 'I would like to see a Church that is poor and for the poor.' The more I thought about it, the more difficult it became to understand.

He first used these terms when addressing the world's media in the Vatican's Paul VI audience hall after being elected to the papacy. Wearing an immaculate white cassock, perhaps he didn't look that poor. The hall itself is an enormous modern building, equipped with the latest in communications technology as well as solar panels on the roof and a beautiful sculpture on the stage – again, hardly suggesting poverty. Meanwhile, the journalists wore suits and ties, and worked away under the glare of expensive cameras – so they didn't seem particularly poor either.

So what, then, did Pope Francis mean? Well, we know he is a man of personal holiness and simplicity, living in simple quarters, refusing elaborate clothing, eating with staff and driving an old car. His 'poor Church' doesn't demand that we dress in sackcloth, walk everywhere and only communicate face to face. His 'poor Church' is concerned with understanding the lives of ordinary people, especially the poor.

His first post-election visit outside of Rome was to Lampedusa, the Sicilian island and migrant hotspot in whose waters far too many asylum seekers – making the short crossing to Europe from north Africa – have drowned. He has installed showers in the Vatican for homeless people; given homes to families fleeing violence in the Middle East; visited the UN to speak on behalf of our threatened planet; and asked the Church to be responsive to the needs of families.

His 'poor Church' is present where there is need. Indeed, in his first apostolic exhortation, 'The Joy of the Gospel', he writes: '…Today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.' This makes clear that the Church is not exclusively concerned with personal holiness, personal purity, personal salvation. Catholicism is not inward-looking. Rather, the Church is concerned with people's lives in all the complexity in which they live, with their dignity and their flourishing, with their problems and their difficulties.

His subsequent offering Laudato si' was the first encyclical to use the principle 'See, Judge, Act' as part of a framework for organising thought, which may seem purely academic until you realise it is foundational to how he thinks. He looks at the situation he is in; the 'poor Church' will do the same. The practical consequence is that every parish is being called to consider the situations of the people it serves, so that it has a clear understanding of the economic and social pressures they face; and so that it can reflect on how best to support their dignity and humanity and then be part of the response to the problems.

In our parishes, the issues are likely to be around lack of work, poor housing, isolation and loneliness, zero-hours contracts, debt and difficulties caused by universal credit. Then there are the problems of the global poor, the problems overseas. There is no shortage of issues for us to notice (see), decide to do something about (judge) and get involved in responding to (act).

And who knows: if our Church truly became the 'poor Church', would it become more attractive again too?