Pope Francis’s Option for the Poor, Part 3: Leading a pastoral revolution

L9780814638040Following the March 2013 papal election of Jorge Maria Begoglio, Liturgical Press — the Catholic publishing house for which I work — published a biography of the new pope. As anyone who was paying attention at the time was aware, several other publishers did, too. Wishing to set this biography off from its competition and at the same time to express something about our new pope’s distinctive style, I gave careful thought to the image we chose for the cover of the book and finally settled on a photograph of Francis washing the feet of the young inmates of the juvenile detention facility in Rome, where he celebrated his first Holy Thursday Mass as Pope. (See the image to the right.)

As we prepared the book for publication, the cover designer working on the project came to me with an interesting question. A small tattoo — one of poor quality and probably homemade — was clearly visible on one of the bare feet that were prominent in the photo. Perhaps she ought to Photoshop the tattoo out of the photo, she suggested, to clean it up a bit?

It took only a few moments for us to make a decision on that question. Francis’s Holy Thursday Mass at a youth detention facility was unprecedented. Long Vatican custom called for the Pope to celebrate the Mass of the Lord Supper in the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and to wash the feet of twelve priests. And here was the new pope, dramatically shirking not only the customary setting and the customary choice of whose feet would be washed, but also the liturgical rubric that called for the washing of men’s feet. Here was Pope Francis at a youth detention facility (joovie, as American kids call it), washing the feet of its inmates, including a couple of women, one of whom was Muslim. I bet no pope has ever washed a tattooed foot before on Holy Thursday. That tattoo spoke volumes about what was happening with that Mass — and also about the man who had made the choice to do it. The tattoo had to stay.

Bergoglio in the slums

The special concern for the poor and marginalized that has recently earned Pope Francis the moniker “apostle of the slums” has surprised almost no one who knew him before his election. It was a major element of his life and ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires as well, such that one priest who knew him well could say to journalist John Allen, Jr., that it was in the city’s slums that Bergoglio breathed the “oxygen” that nourished his ministry and his understanding of the church.

Bergoglio, Allen has reported, oversaw a “pastoral revolution” in those slums that included hand-picking several dedicated priests (“Bergoglio’s ‘infantry’ in the villas”) to live and work there, guiding programs like a drug addiction recovery center, a trade school, a home for the elderly, a community newspaper, and more. Under his leadership, parishes in those desperate regions blossomed into vibrant centers of faith and social services.

Significantly, Bergoglio did not preside over all of this from afar, nodding his approval from the safety and comfort of his office. He visited frequently, Allen writes, “walking the streets, talking to the people, leading them in worship and standing with them when times were tough.” Allen’s report quotes a Buenos Aires priest:

“When he would visit here, he’d take the bus and then he’d just come walking around the corner like a normal guy,” Isasmendi said.

“For us, it was the most natural thing in the world. He’d sit around and drink mate (an Argentinian tea), talking with people about whatever was going on. He’d start talking to the doorman or somebody about a book he was reading, and I could leave him there and go do something else, because Bergoglio was totally comfortable.”

The Pope and the Poor

Since his election as Bishop of Rome, we have seen these same pastoral convictions expressed in many dramatic and remarkable ways. Consider briefly:

  • Immediately following that election, Pope Francis asked his fellow Argentines not to travel to Rome for his inauguration, but rather to give the money they would have spent on the trip to the poor.
  • On Holy Thursday 2013 — as we noted above — he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s Casa Del Marmo Youth Detention Centre, washing the feet of twelve of its young inmates, including women, one of whom was Muslim.
  • In April 2013, the Pope decisively “unblocked” the beatification process of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. As Archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador, Romero was assassinated in 1980 for challenging his government’s brutal oppression of the poor. He probably represents better than any other twentieth century figure the remarkable blossoming of the Church’s awareness of its call to an option for the poor that came about precisely in Latin America following the Second Vatican Council.
  • In a July 2013 address to seminarians, he asked them to avoid buying new and luxury cars, saying, “It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car…. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
  • Along the same lines, the Pope has made a fascinating choice of his vehicle of choice for traveling around Vatican City and elsehwhere. Rather than the custom-made Renault, BMW X5, or Mercedes that had previously served as typical papal modes of transportation, Francis has taken to riding in the back seat of a Ford Focus, a compact car with a modest sticker price.
  • During his July 2013 pastoral visit to Rio de Janiero, Brazil, on the occasion of World Youth Day, Francis insisted on the addition to his schedule of a visit to one of the city’s most deperate and violent slums. On that occasion, he walked the streets, visited a family’s home, and said in his public comments, “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty…. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity.”

More dramatic and potentially more consequential than any of these moments was Pope Francis’s very first pastoral visit outside of Rome, to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa. It serves as an arrival point for immigrants making their way, often packed into rickety wooden boats exposed to the elements, from Africa to Italy by sea. Tens of thousands have made such a voyage in recent years. For a good perspective on the significance of the location, journalist John Allen, Jr., provides a helpful comparison:

To get a sense of its impact, imagine a newly elected president of the United States announcing that his first trip outside D.C. would be to the border to see for himself where people have died and to embrace detainees in an ICE facility. It would be taken as a bold way of proclaiming that compassion will be a hallmark of the new administration. That’s exactly how Italians, and Europeans generally, are reacting to Francis’ planned outing.

While at Lampedusa, the Pope threw a wreath of flowers into the sea to remember the tens of thousands of migrants who have lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean. He celebrated Mass with the people of the island and met with immigrants. Perhaps most fascinating, the Pope chose to wear purple vestments, the liturgical color of Lent, for this Mass on a weekday of ordinary time. He used the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, and in his homily, he called the Mass ”a liturgy of repentance.” Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden provided more striking details:

The Mass was filled with reminders that Lampedusa is now synonymous with dangerous attempts to reach Europe: the altar was built over a small boat; the pastoral staff the pope used was carved from wood recycled from a shipwrecked boat; the lectern was made from old wood as well and had a ship’s wheel mounted on the front; and even the chalice — although lined with silver — was carved from the wood of a wrecked boat.

And rather than being transported while on the island in the popemobile, he travelled in a borrowed 20-year-old Fiat Campagnola.

The Pope’s homily at the Mass in Lampedusa included comments such as these:

So many of us, even including myself, are disoriented, we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live, we don’t care, we don’t protect that which God has created for all, and we are unable to care for one another. And when this disorientation assumes worldwide dimensions, we arrive at tragedies like the one we have seen.

“Where is your brother?” the voice of his blood cries even to me, God says. This is not a question addressed to others: it is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity! And their voices rise up even to God!


In Spanish literature there is a play by Lope de Vega that tells how the inhabitants of the city of Fuente Ovejuna killed the Governor because he was a tyrant, and did it in such a way that no one knew who had carried out the execution. And when the judge of the king asked “Who killed the Governor?” they all responded, “Fuente Ovejuna, sir.” All and no one! Even today this question comes with force: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We all respond this way: not me, it has nothing to do with me, there are others, certainly not me. But God asks each one of us: “Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?” Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility; we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference.

Again and again in a pontificate that is still less than 5 months old, Pope Francis has made clear that top priorities of his ministry will include presence to and pastoral care of the poor, drawing the attention of the church and the world to the situations of people living in poverty, and challenging the indifference of the rich that helps that poverty to remain and to grow. He has not been satisfied with a few perfunctory comments or even strong statements made from the safety of the apostolic palace (a place of residence he has eschewed). Both prior to and after his election, he has gone to the places where poor people are, and he has gone far beyond what was expected of him.

In Part 4 of this series, we’ll consider one further important and fascinating aspect of his option for the poor (and the part that most annoys and challenges many who might otherwise be most readily disposed to support him): the Pope’s challenge to the dominant global economic system.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.


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