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Of “Pope-Pope” and Poverty

March 22, 2013

A meme has been floating around on the internet that looks something like this:

popepope

(source:http://www.stpeterslist.com/10426/pope-francis-30-photos-and-memes-to-love-and-share/)

While it’s someone questionable to be comparing the pope to a figure from a TV-sitcom from the early twenty-aughts, this isn’t too much compared to the meme that came out around the last pope:

benedict

(source: http://jim-comes-out.blogspot.com/2011/07/highly-offensive-and-offended.html)

Here’s just one more:

succession

(source: http://www.stpeterslist.com/10426/pope-francis-30-photos-and-memes-to-love-and-share/)

These memes illustrate something beyond comparisons with lookalikes, and the third image seems to solidify it. This new pope is different, and an understanding of this was picked up rather quickly by various media outlets.

First, some background. He’s the first pope born in the Americas, (but) the son of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  He’s the first Jesuit pope. And, for some, he represents an opportunity for reform, not of official church doctrine, but perhaps of outlook.

To start, let’s look at how the last pope explained his choice of name:

“I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences. Treading in his footsteps, I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God, a precious but unfortunately fragile gift to pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all.”

Here’s what Francis said about why he chose “Francis”:

“Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”

So, we see some continuity; in both there is a recognition of the primacy of peace in the principles of the papacy, a peace potentially fragile but pertinent and precious and palpable if we but try.

What’s new though: poverty, the provisioning of the poor by means of social justice preached by the Church was a papal prerogative first promulgated by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, which has been followed up by numerous works by the Church which deal with social justice. So, it’s interesting to see a conjunction between this new pope and a theme which almost seems to have fallen out of vogue.

How different is this from his predecessor? An ex-priest (Matthew Fox) who was expelled from the church for having too-progressive a set of views had this to say:

“Two months after Reagan was sworn in, there was a meeting of the National Security Council in Santa Fe to discuss one question: how can we destroy Liberation [theology] in Latin America? They said, ‘We can’t destroy it, but we can split the church.’ So they went after the Pope with the head of the CIA, William Casey (who was a very far right-wing Catholic, probably an Opus Dei), made 29 trips to the Vatican with satchels full of cash to give to the Pope in exchange for his going after liberation theology in Latin America.”

He was then asked: “Has the war on liberation theology been waged right up to the present?” to which he responded, “Yes.”

Flat-out asked why the Catholic church didn’t tolerate liberation theology, he said: “ A lot of it comes from right-wing German Bishops and financiers. They were very worried about South America going Communist, which fits in perfectly with the narrative of Reagan’s State Department. Also, the German church is the most dominant church in Catholicism because they give the most money to Rome. In Germany, taxes subsidize the Catholic Church whether you’re a part of it or not.”

These thoughts, these actions seem disturbing, especially if they’re true. It will be interesting to see if this new pope, who seems so humble, will turn the page on ideas such as those outlined just above and look back at the issue of social justice, which most certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Let’s look at this new pope’s stance on a couple of things for good measure:

On social issues in general:

“Little by little we are getting used to hearing and seeing, through the media, the crime of contemporary society, presented almost with a perverse joy, and we are used to touching and feeling it around us and in our own flesh. The drama is on the street, in the neighborhood, in our house and – why not? – even in our hearts. We live with a violence that kills, destroys families, that awakens wars and conflicts in many countries. We live with envy, hatred, slander, worldliness in our hearts. The suffering of the innocent and peaceful continues to buffet us; contempt for the rights of the most fragile individuals and peoples is not so far away from us; the rule of money with its demonic effects like drugs, corruption, human trafficking – including trafficking in children – along with material and moral poverty are common today. The destruction of decent work, painful migrations, and the lack of a future also also part of this symphony. Nor are our mistakes and sins as the Church outside of this big picture. The most justified personal selfishnesses – which can be big ones – the lack of ethical values in society that metastasizes in families, in neighborhoods, towns, and cities… these speak to us of our limitations, our weakness, and our inability to transform this innumerable list of destructive realities.”

And on social justice in particular:

“Justice is that which gladdens the heart: when there is something for everyone; when one sees that there is equality, fairness; and when each has his own. When one sees that there is enough for all, one feels a special joy in the heart.. How sad it is when one sees that the resources could be perfectly adequate for everyone and it turns out to be not enough… Our people know that the whole is greater than the parts and that is why we ask for ‘bread and work for all.’ How despicable, then, is the one who treasures up belongings only for today, who has a tiny, selfish heart and only thinks about swiping that slice that he will not even take with him when he dies? Because nobody takes anything with them. I have never seen a moving van behind a funeral procession. My grandmother used to tell us: ‘The shroud has no pockets.’” (Homily August 7, 2012)

bus

(source: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1039777/thumbs/o-POPE-ON-THE-BUS-TODAY-570.jpg?1)

(I wonder if they had an on-board movie)

The Jesuit order is committed to poverty; the new pope still rides the bus. The future may well hold a renewed dialogue on social issues, and if it does, perhaps this pope will be a positive part of it.

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