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Alexander Foitzik {*}

A Poor Church for the Poor


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2013, P. 271-273
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


"Even in the tabloid press words like humility and modesty are successful," wrote Petra Bahr, the Cultural Commissioner of the Protestant Church in Germany - apparently equally surprised as annoyed - in a rather bilious newspaper commentary on the media hype surrounding the new pope. The Protestant theologian recognized that his simple and clear message, "Bethink you of the life of Jesus Christ and follow him," had worldwide enthralled the commentators. But as expected, she chafes at the "staging" of this ecclesial office, which in her view was undoubtedly the reason behind of all the excitement.

The ecumenical sisterly frowning was to a certain extent not only understandable. It provides also the opportunity for a renewed, a more differentiated view: How much of the (media) attention is paid to the Pope as the ultimately sole real "world prominence," how much to the new reality per se, and how much to this new Pope, the first Jesuit on the Chair of Peter and a fortiori to a pope who apparently programmatically calls himself Francis?

How was it possible that in a few days by a few simple gestures and words, which appeared so modest and so humble - certainly even regardless of the Vatican's staging skills - Pope Francis became not only a global popular figure? How was it especially possible that he almost within hours became the projection screen of enormous expectations and hopes? Especially in Germany and in the German local church, where the fellow countryman on the Chair of Peter seems to be almost forgotten - to say nothing of those rather traditionalist-oriented circles who apparently see their hopes dashed in the general Francis euphoria. With the respective vehemence they emphasize there the continuity between Benedict and Francis; the latter would only enforce what his predecessor had already mentally worked out.

A representative survey in late March, for example, showed that four out of ten Germans (43 percent) expect that the new Pope would fundamentally reform the Church; among Catholics even almost every other one (47 percent) has this expectation. And this high expectation seems to be reflected even in the German episcopate. Apparently also there, quite a few have - although probably rather in secret - yearned that a pope primarily begins with the long-overdue restructuring of the "papal court."

Such great expectations and hopes - and yet, one at first knew very little about this Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Although in 2005 he apparently ranked among the "Papapili;" this time even clever Vaticanisti had not him on the screen. And at this point the contrast with the predecessor, the learned professor of theology, Joseph Ratzinger could not be greater. From Bergoglio's available publications, it was and is hardly possible to learn something about Francis, his prospective policy, and the new pope's view on papacy. Even if the relevant publishing houses throughout the world are feverishly publishing the relatively few available material.

On the contrary, the contents, for example, of two discussion volumes and some spiritual writings have - against the background of too high expectations? - obviously caused barely concealed disillusionment in many Western European or German readers:



The former archbishop of Buenos Aires is really humorous, so it says repeatedly, but not strictly an intellectual. The well verified and highly credible commitment of the "Cardinal of the Poor" - the coverage focused very quickly on this point - would in his publications appear somewhat apolitical, almost paternalistic. So rather a good heart than a political thinker?

And he would be firmly committed - especially with regard to the often quoted "hot irons" from celibacy to contraception - to the Catholic Church's teachings: the whole mixed with a considerable dose of a Latin American or Argentine popular piety that sounds certainly a bit strange. What had people expected?


A New Style in the Vatican

Pope Francis would achieve more with signs and gestures than with words, at the German Protestant Church Congress in early May, the Chairman of the Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch commented on his new Pope. Are therefore not the signs and gestures of the first weeks and months, the new, anything but monarchical "style" enough program? This new papal appearance, which is not confined to going without the red shoes, which became temporarily the papal central symbol in the media?

From the delayed move from the rather bustling guest house of the Vatican into the quiet papal private apartments, the daily early Mass with various employees and domestic workers, the Holy Thursday Mass in the juvenile detention center -inclusively washing the feet of female inmates, up to the at every opportunity sought direct contact with plain people - to the horror of the Vatican security forces: All this makes it unimaginable that behind this behaviour is not an understanding of office and Church which is philanthropic and close to people, and that this Pope, despite all outward modesty and humility, very well knows inwardly what he wants and does! But how great and fatal would be the disappointment if in the long run he only kept to these gestures and signs, only to a new "style"?

However, Francis does not confine himself to gestures and signs. Already at his first press conference, he unmistakeably stated that he wanted a "poor church for the poor." And even before his election, in the so-called pre-conclave, he has not only warned his fellow cardinals of a self-referential, narcissistic church but gave an urgent warning: the Church must go to the people at the "periphery" of society, to the peripheries of human existence (and Francis has self-confidently made sure that the world hears of this speech). In addition to the appeal to the Church to be merciful, and "with love and tenderness" to care for all people, but especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, there is the clear and straightforward criticism of an economic globalization which is without solidarity, and takes no account of people, and whose burden the poor have to bear worldwide.

Finally, the name chosen by the new Pope may only be labeled as 'programmatic'. How feverishly they had to research on this Francis in the editorial archives of the world at the evening of the election, with apparently equally growing new enthusiasm for the "Poverello" of Assisi: the one who gave away all his possessions, and devoted himself to the poor and the lepers, to the outcasts of society. The one who chooses such a patron saint must have a clear message, a certain understanding of ministry, and above all a clear idea of the Church's task and mission.

Thus, it is surprising and pleasing that with this new Pope terms as "humility and modesty" were successful in the tabloid press. And who would deny that the much-maligned tabloid press has a special feel for trends and moods: A humble and modest pope is therefore apparently exactly the right one - at a time when a certain way of life and economic activity, a debt-financed "more appearance than substance" got into an obvious crisis.

Though perhaps not in the tabloid press - owing to the curious enthusiasm for the "cardinal of the poor" who has become Pope, concepts and images of a church were successful, of a church which charitably dedicates herself in solidarity to the poor and those who howsoever are distressed. Will thus, for instance in Germany, the view on the church change again for the better - perhaps even permanently? From an anyway low level, her reputation lately rather continued declining - due to 'abuse scandal' and 'hospital scandal'.

Sure, with the euphoric view of the new Pope and his "poor church for the poor," also a bit romantic idealization seems occasionally to play a role: some people probably rather project their own desires, longings and dreams about the Church. The Argentinean archbishop Bergoglio, for instance, was certainly never a "liberation theologian" of Brazilian type. And not every Latin American bishop is almost automatically desirous of a "poor church for the poor" - or at least one understands very different things as regards such a church.

The euphoric enthusiasm for the new situation or the new pope is anyway not fair: Caritas and Diakonia, these "favours" are for the church not a kind of charitable activity that could equally well be left to others, it belongs to her nature, and is an indispensable expression of her nature.



The church could therefore neglect these acts of kindness as little as sacrament and word. Also Benedict XVI has made his church take this to heart with his first encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," which at that time was very favourably received inside and outside the church. Is this almost forgotten, because signs and gestures bring more about than words, or at least the respective signs and gestures must be added even to the most powerfully luminous words?

Nobody will here probably insinuate seriously that the emeritus pope is lacking in humility and modesty. Only in a few years theologians and church historians will be able to assess fairly and reliably how deep the break and how intense the continuity between Benedict and Francis are or were. And also all "wings" in the church, which currently are struggling explicitly / implicitly for the prerogative of interpretation over both pontificates, should adopt an attitude of 'wait and see'. Anyway, it seems that Pope Francis is currently not occupied with this question, even if in mid-May his predecessor has taken up quarters in his garden.

Will the everywhere tangible enthusiasm for the as pope elected "Cardinal of the Poor" not only arouse strong emotions in the church in Germany but also change her? Will now, for instance the reform-oriented circles feel encouraged, whereas in the pontificate of Benedict XVI the traditionalists had clearly the upper hand? Will the polarization of the Church in Germany possibly decrease or perhaps continue to grow?

According to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for instance, the church faces a fundamental change of perspective after the election of Pope Francis. This was emphasized by the archbishop of Munich on the occasion of this year's "Chrism Mass" in his diocese. Marx also belongs to the representative "task force" of in total eight cardinals, appointed by the Pope in April; it is inter alia responsible for the reform of the Curia.

The fact that Francis puts the poor into the center means, according to Marx, a major challenge for the whole church, a challenge that can be understood only step by step. But the poor are teachers, so that we could realize how dependent we are on the grace and love of God. Together with Pope Francis Christians should learn what it means to be poor before God, and to be attached to the poor as brothers and sisters.

Is in this sense a conversion process conceivable or even necessary for the German church, as for instance the Church in Latin America has undergone it under the keyword "option for the poor" - in implementation or creative appropriation of the Second Vatican Council, especially of its Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes"? Before this process of conversion there was the clear recognition of the extent to which large parts of the Church, especially their priests and bishops had gone away from the real life of the people and especially from the poor. But what does it mean if the church would go to the "periphery" in today's German society, i.e. to the people in the "existential marginal areas" - and who are "the poor of ours"?


Christ's Presence in the Marginalized

In the last year "diakonia" was the main topic for the nationwide dialogue or discussion process, which in the end of 2010 was initiated by the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, in order to regain the confidence which was lost primarily by the disclosure of numerous cases of sexual abuse of children and young people by clerics and religious. Will Pope Francis or the enthusiasm for his new style and his message help this process of dialogue to achieve new dynamism?

This year, the liturgy is the focus of the dialogue process with a view to the ceremonial adoption of the dogmatic constitution on the Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium" by the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago. In the context of the dialogue process, the bishops also invited to a "National Eucharistic Congress" in early June. It was about a celebration of faith, "an encounter with Christ and with one another." The Congress served "to deepen faith and knowledge of the mystery of the Eucharist," stated the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who was in charge of the event when presenting the programme whose structure was highly reminiscent of World Youth Days.

But who would deny that such a deepening of faith and knowledge of the Eucharistic mystery is needed, is always needed. Many believers struggle primarily to understand what is the meaning of the "encounter with the living Christ" in the Eucharistic. Some people enviously look here on the religious virtuosos for whom only questions of the aesthetic design of the Eucharist or of the Eucharistic adoration seem to be urgent. Others do not want or can not content themselves with the reference to an unfathomable mystery. In the Eucharist we celebrate the focal point of our faith. But this also means, writes the Benedictine Father Anselm Grün, that here all the problems of our faith and our difficulties in in living and working together condense.

Could not first and foremost a common return to Christ's promised presence in the poor, the disadvantaged and marginalized be of help in view of such difficulties in realizing faith or in "deepening of faith in and knowledge of the Eucharistic mystery" - a Eucharistic Congress in a poor church for the poor?


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'