The reading at Morning Prayer yesterday (Luke 9.51-end) along with the Student Christian Movement’s call for bloggers to respond this week to Pope Francis’ famous statement: ‘a poor Church for the poor’ has meant that, despite the looming pressure of Finals, I really wanted to write this short blog-post. I’m sorry for its brevity and inadequacy, but it comes from the heart.
‘A poor Church for the poor’ – Pope Francis
Firstly, it’s important to say that the idea of the Church for the poor is not just the innovation of an eccentric occupant of the throne of St. Peter. In fact, it is the starting place of Jesus’ own ministry. The Son of God, who possesses all the riches of the Godhead, chooses to identity not only with the poverty of the human condition in general but with the particular poverty of the poor, the homeless and the marginalised. This is the radical witness of the Gospel, here seen in three short passages (many hundreds could be chosen):
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself’ (Philippians 2.5ff.)
‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Luke 9.58)
‘Therefore Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17)
Our response to this, if it is to be genuine, can be nothing short of what Pope Francis (and many before him and today) proclaim: ‘a poor Church for the poor’. Our response to the Gospel must be a Church which exists for those from whom life is constantly precarious, a daily struggle to survive and make ends meet. A Church for those whose tightly-limited spending power means their voices seem to count for so little to our politicians, whose defences against the storms of life are often worn so thin. A Church for those who live on ill-served council estates and densely-populated inner-city streets. We must be a Church that exists first and foremost for these people – and not primarily for those who can afford to pay the piper and call the tune, or for those who are cushioned by the defences bought with a bit of money. Our society, so often seems to work for those who can navigate comfortably the coffee shops and corridors and social connections where power moves and decisions are made and grossly fails those who cannot even dream of this world.
What the Pope is advocating is a Church for the poor: not just a FoodBank for the poor, a debt advice project for the poor, a campaigning organisation for the poor or a financial literary class for the poor… we need a whole Church for the poor. A Church where the Holy of Holies is rent open, where middle-class norms and culture don’t prevail and exclude, where middle-class anxieties aren’t the driving force and criteria for making decisions. A Church where all are welcomed and embraced. Trust me, a Church for the poor would be challenging and disturbing in a society that prefers to keep the poor at arm’s length.
With Christ as our example, we have to fling open the doors of the Church in such a way that every person who walks through the doors can be greeted as Christ himself. I have wept, and so have many others, at the fact that he Church is so often wrapped-up in trying to satisfy the demands of its comfortable, middle-class members: we talk a lot about pews and what we should sit on in Church; we debate whether the Mass was celebrated exactly as we’d have liked it and we forget – forget at our peril – that Christ came not to be served but to serve and sends us out to do the same. The Gospel of Christ is not only spiritual comfort for those brave enough to step through the doors of the Church, it is good news for the world and especially for the poor. When Our Lady sang the red-song of the Magnificat, when the Lord of glory was born in a stable with only shepherds and foreigners to welcome his coming, when Jesus Christ was crucified between two common criminals in a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, the agenda for the Church was firmly established and the priorities of God were laid uncomfortably bare.
Sunday by Sunday the Holy Eucharist is celebrated with the reverence and beauty appropriate to so great a mystery but, right in the heart of it, the holy flesh of Jesus is made present in ordinary bread, the Lord makes himself known in the food of the poor. In the Mass the most precious gift imaginable, the very life of God himself, is placed into the hands of all those who reach out for it – hands dirty from months on the streets; frail hands aware of their own unworthiness; the hands of those who work for unfair pay; the hands of saints of sinners; the hands which many would not dream to touch are touched by the Bread of Life, which is God himself. This is the ‘source and summit’ of the Church – in the Mass, the Church discovers who it is afresh. It is a sign – in its frailty and brokenness – to the God who is faithful to each person, and the whole creation, which he has fashioned in love.
If we have a God who chooses to empty himself for us, whose sacrificial life is freely offered for ‘the sins of the whole world’, then the Church too must live up to its great commission. Archbishop Ramsey said that the Church was the only members organisation that exists wholly for the good of those outside its walls – we need to rediscover this. We need to stop expending all our energy to keep our buildings open and hold on to our place in British life and start reaching to the margins, to the places where Christ can be found.
There is a power in this world. A power greater than media influence, greater than might or money – and it wells up when the words of Mary’s Magnificat are taken seriously: when the hungry are fed, the poor raised up and the wealthy and the powerful are brought down. It is a power made perfect in weakness; a wisdom made perfect in foolishness. If we live this mission, truly live it, then we will be a ‘poor Church for the poor’.
St. Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, pray for us.