It is no longer news that the college of Cardinals of the Catholic Church broke all known barriers, prejudices and sentiments in electing Pope Francis on March 13, 2013 the leader of the world’s largest religious organisation. It is also no longer news that the pope is the first Jesuit pontiff of the Catholic Church who shuns all papal protocols including abandoning Apostolic Palace, the papal official residence, to live in a Catholic guest house known as Casa Santa Marta.
In the history of the Catholic Church, no Pope had won the love of the world press and all men irrespective of tribe, tongue and creed through humility as exemplified by Francis on his election day when he requested the pilgrims gathered in the Saint Peter’s Square to pray and bless his petrine ministry; this singular act opened the tide in making Pope Francis one of the most loved and famous men on earth presently.
So it was with unrivalled joy and inestimable love that all Catholic faithfuls and the world welcomed the new Pope although it was clearly agreed that the new Pope, as a moderate conservative, shall uphold the traditional teachings and dogma of the church to the disappointment of many who had wished to see a “reformist” pope who will advance a new vista on contentious issues like gay marriage, ordination of female priests, contraception, abortion, euthanasia and marriage for catholic priests.
The pope chose, as his papal name, Francis in recognition of Saint Francis of Assisi, a man who led his life for the poor. In a way, the choice of the pope’s name did not come as a surprise to many who had studied the man, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his strides in the Catholic Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a known fact that the pope identified with the poor by living a simple and indeed poor life in his capacity as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
As a way of setting the tone of his papacy two days after his election, the pope declared “…I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.” Explaing further, pope Francis submitted, “if we step outside of ourselves, we will find poverty… This is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way… We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those (poor who need help most).”
Living into the standards of his predecessors on issues of human dignity, essentials and poverty, Francis has officially authorized a benchmark, if not a “marking scheme,” to be used in the study and evaluation of his contributions and successes to socio-economic and spiritual life of mankind at the end of his papacy.
Indeed, poverty has been the number one enemy of human advancement and co-existence from time immemorial; so the pope’s declaration brings a heave of succour to the world that for the first time in recent history, a spiritual and pragmatic strategy shall be pursued in elevating man from the dreadful shackles of poverty.
On the occasion of the closing of the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome in 2009, Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, attacking absolute poverty in Africa charged, “the (Catholic) Church dedicates herself also to work, with every means available, so that no African will be without daily bread.” Although the declaration did not resonate in practical terms pass the walls of the Saint Peter’s Basilica where it was made by Benedict, however the world awaits to see how pope Francis would surpass mere “sloganeering” to practicality in fighting endemic poverty in the world.
Granted, Pope Francis is no Confucius who had all the political and overbearing government biceps to decree poverty out of existence in Lu State of ancient China. It is also obvious that Francis is nowhere near the political and military might of Great Caesars-Julius and Augustus-who chiselled the Romanisation of the world neither can we claim that the Pope commands the military strategy of Alexander the Great to ram the world leaders into his dream of poverty eradication.
However, Pope Francis can be our modern day Saint (Pope) Gregory the Great who led the Church and Rome to prosperity out of poverty and ruins after the incursions of the Lombards. In history, we come to appreciate that apart from openly crying for the death of a beggar in the street of Rome and blaming himself for not doing enough in caring for the poor, Saint Gregory marched liturgy and theology with action by providing food for the poor through farming and care for the sick. The Great Gregory charged his bishops thus: “I have frequently charged you (bishops)… to act as my representative … to relieve the poor in their distress …. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out.” Defining what papacy is all about, he said “… I hold the office of steward to the property of the poor.”
The reality of today entails that poverty has gone hydra-headed to the extent that the challenges of distance, language and population would likely make farming, as a means of combating global poverty as mastered by Saint Gregory, less productive if not ineffective. Indeed, poverty has transcended bread and butter as it was in the time of Saint Gregory the Great but our beloved Francis can illuminate the Saint Gregory of our generation by holding the papacy as the “steward to the property of the poor.” Luckily, Canon Law 331 recognises the Pope as the Supreme and final authority in Catholicism; hence, he can use the goodwill, property and wealth of the Church available to him to achieve the much desired eradication of absolute and relative poverty plaguing the world today.
As a starter, Francis can use his enormous goodwill and spiritual clout to influence corporate and world leaders to show abiding commitment on the issue of poverty; he can achieve this by organising multi-lateral talks and programs which can be localised and implemented by governments worldwide. He can also go a step further by encouraging peer review mechanism which shall serve as a gauge in determining the success of every country in this regard. There is also a great need on the side of advanced countries to commit to elevating third world countries out of absolute poverty using aids, grants, gifts, debt relief, exchange programs, etc.
Looking inwards, the Pope can elect to prop his clergy and religious as agents of poverty eradication knowing fully well that once human capital is developed and social services provided, mankind can comfortably say “goodbye to poverty and wretchedness.”
Thus, Catholic owned schools and hospitals should be resuscitated and refocused for the development of human capital and care of the health of mankind. In the past, mission schools were extensively used in training people of under-developed world and there is no verifiable reason why that commendable practice should not be upheld and expanded so that skills acquisition and education which are central to the poverty question would be sustained. Again, mission hospitals need to be expanded, upgraded and de-Catholicised in line with present day realities to win the war against poverty and diseases. And priests, nuns, and the religious are the best suited in providing education, skills acquisition and health care for the teeming poor. After all, education and good health in association with finance are the ultimate breakers of poverty cycle.
The pope should also be in the forefront of advancing the fight against malnutrition and hunger in war torn countries by sending relief materials and clothing; thus, Caritas International, the Catholic arm of charity must be reorganized and strengthened for greater efficiency while gender equality should be encouraged in all nations.
Similarly, access to water and finance are important in poverty eradication drive; the church can take the lead in sinking bore holes in church premises and communities in effort to make water available to the poor. Again, finance serves as a breaker of the poverty cycle so the pope can get his priests advance micro-loans to the poor. Indeed, it is foolhardy to stash millions of euros in Vatican bank while people are dying of poverty daily and we keep chorusing we want a “poor Church for the poor.”
In all, the pope can demonstrate a practical commitment to poverty and the poor by encouraging nations to build and sustain good institutions of government which fight poverty and provide social services to the people with emphases on forming global alliance in fighting poverty.
The time has started ticking for Pope Francis; the Pope is a good man in a race against time and history. Although, his primary duty is the spiritual advancement of man, he had expanded his task by including the fight against poverty to it. And he must not fail in fighting poverty in concrete terms bearing in mind that the poor do not want our pity but help and charity; they want to be up and doing, they also want their dignity eroded by poverty restored and all these are possible when we deliberately make them to be at par with us in education and skills acquisition and create a fair environment for all man to thrive.
Pope Francis: shall it be poverty eradication or another attempt at sloganeering as was obtainable in before now, holy father? Only time would tell.
Okafor C. Udoka writes from Aba, Abia State.