Understanding Pope Francis’ theology of the poor

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Pope Francis kisses a member of the Pope John XXIII Community in Rome in this Aug.12, 2016, file photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis declared his intention to stand in solidarity with people who are poor from the first moments of his papacy.

Not only was he the first Jesuit pope, but his intention was revealed in his choice of a name, choosing the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

Pope kisses foot of inmate
Pope Francis kisses the foot of an inmate during the washing of the feet during Holy Thursday Mass at the Paliano prison outside of Rome in this 2017 file photo. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Pope Francis told journalists the idea came to him in the conclave as the votes were still being counted. Cardinal Claudio Hummes, archbishop emeritus of Sao Paolo, Brazil, had embraced then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires when it became clear he would become pope, and reminded him not to forget the poor people of the world.

“And those words came to me: the poor, the poor,” Francis said at an audience with 5,000 journalists days after his election. “Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi.”

St. Francis of Assisi “gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man,” he said. “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”

Since that day, Pope Francis has returned again and again to his insistence that the Church must seek out those who live on the margins and find a way to welcome and help them. It’s a theme that runs through his encyclicals, especially Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home,” 2015) and Fratelli Tutti (“On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” 2020), and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

It’s in his commitment to offer showers and haircuts to homeless people at the Vatican, and his decision to turn a Rome building that had served as the headquarters for a congregation of women religious into a homeless shelter instead of a luxury hotel.

It’s in his decision to make his first pastoral visit outside Rome to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea, where he celebrated Mass for migrants; his practice of celebrating his birthday with people who are poor or suffering; his institution and observation of the World Day of the Poor.

‘Do what you can do’

On Nov. 12, 2021, ahead of the fifth observation of the day, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to Assisi with 500 people suffering economically or socially.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi is built around the Portiuncula, the small chapel where, Pope Francis explained, “St. Francis welcomed St. Clare, the first brothers and many poor people who came to him,” Catholic News Service reported.

There St. Francis received them with hospitality, the pope said, allowing them to feel “welcomed, not ashamed.”

“An open heart and outstretched hand” is always the first step in creating a true encounter, he said. It also is the way to experience the truth that “every one of us needs the other, and that even weakness, if experienced together, can become a strength that will make the world better.”

Pope Francis homily
Pope Francis gives the homily as he celebrates Mass marking the 2021 World Day of the Poor in St. Peter’s Basilica. CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

Asked what is notable about Pope Francis’ insistence on encounter and relationship with people who are poor or who live on the fringes of society, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Lombardo of the Archdiocese of Chicago said: “There’s not really anything in particular, because there’s so much. He adds a personal dimension, though, that people who are poor are human beings and they should be treated as such.”

Franciscans of the Eucharist
Sisters Kate O’Leary and Emily Persicketti hand out a backpack to a neighbor in need. Volunteers and members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist pass out backpacks filled with schools supplies to children in 2020 at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. The mission distributed hundreds of backpacks to students for the fall school year. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

Bishop Lombardo, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, founded both the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago and the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. Members of the community live at the mission in Chicago’s impoverished West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

They work with a large number of volunteers, many of whom return again and again. One of the most difficult things about COVID-19 was that it became difficult for people to maintain those relationships, Bishop Lombardo said.

“Pope Francis puts more emphasis on the necessity to reach out to those who are poor and on the margins, and it makes people think about what they are doing,” he said. “I tell people, ‘Do what you can do, not what you can’t do.’ Most people that I encounter here in Chicago like to do hands-on work where they’re meeting with the people, and I encourage people to have an ongoing relationship with whatever the work they’re doing is.”

A wrong worldview

The idea that the Church must reach out to poor people is not new, said Margaret Pfeil, an associate teaching professor in the theology department and Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.

World Day of the Poor “Previous popes certainly have addressed what we call the preferential option for the poor,” said Pfeil, a founder and resident of a Catholic Worker community in South Bend, Indiana. “What Pope Francis is doing is distinctive in certain ways. I think in virtually every document he has written, he references people on the margins, even a document like Evangelii Gaudium, which he went out of his way to say was not social teaching. … Throughout his texts, he has repeatedly referenced ‘throwaway culture,’ and he has included humans in that. That humans, as well as other parts of creation, are seen as expendable, and that’s a moral problem.”

For Pope Francis, Pfeil said, the idea that any living thing is expendable, and that creation is ours to destroy if we wish, is wrong. Especially in Laudato Si’ and now in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, he draws a clear connection between the plight of the earth and the plight of disadvantaged people who live on it.

“It matters how human beings treat each other in society, and we have to maintain this connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, to hear that voice of suffering as connected, because we are all interconnected,” Pfeil said. “In Laudato Si’, he goes out of his way to emphasize the intrinsic value of every member of creation and that is at the heart of the interconnectedness that he’s talking about.”

Turning words into action

Pope Francis also has talked constantly about the need for encounter, for people of faith to leave their enclaves and venture to those who need to experience the love of God, returning again and again to his advice to pastors, to be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” living and walking with their flocks.

That quote has become a favorite of Kateri Mancini, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Mancini works not just with Catholic parishes but also other communities of faith on what faith-based social justice means on issues that the community is dealing with, she said.

While Mancini loves Fratelli Tutti and its commentary on social friendship — “I would wallpaper my walls with it if I could,” she said — the most important thing for her is that Pope Francis turns his words about encountering people on the margins into action.

“He’s going into communities that other people aren’t actively going into,” she said. “They don’t expect the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to go into a refugee community, or to wash feet in a prison or in a juvenile detention center. It fills my heart to know that we have a leader that is doing that. … This is really the call of our faith. It’s really reaffirming. Pope Francis is living out his faith in a way that is getting him noticed and that is really critical. This insistence on reaching out to the people in the margins, it’s not a one-time thing. It’s consistent in all of his teachings and all of his messages. Who is a population that really needs our focus right now? Who isn’t being heard?”

Bill O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ executive vice president for mission and mobilization, said he took notice when Pope Francis made his first trip to Lampedusa. CRS is the international development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“There’s a zillion other places he could have gone,” O’Keefe said. “He said, ‘What I’m going to put in the center of my papacy are these people, the ones who have been forgotten and the ones who have been cast out.’ He’s just pounding and pounding away at it. … He went to the Central African Republic (in 2015) in a very dicey time when no kind of sane, security-minded people thought it was a good idea. That was a place that he considered to be on the periphery that needed to be held up to world attention. Going to Iraq also (in 2021). I’m quite sure that anyone involved in security was having massive panic attacks, but he felt that was where he needed to be.”

That is connected to the pope’s “focus on encounter and really kind of making it personal, to really encounter the poor as people, as equals, with all the inherent dignity that each of us and all of us have,” O’Keefe said. “That kind of intimate personal connection that he’s called for feels to me different and a deepening of the tradition so far. That was the connection that Jesus had with people and the poor.”

Walking with people on the margins

Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA, said Pope Francis’ life in Argentina has helped him understand people who live on the margins.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, and Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Ariz., pray in 2018 with a young family moments before they leave Casa Alitas, a family shelter in Tucson, for a bus trip that will take them to family in Baltimore. CNS photo/Michael Brown, Catholic Outlook

“The reason that Pope Francis is so credible is that he spent his life among poor people,” said Sister Donna, an Adrian Dominican. “He has walked the walk, and I think that gives him the credibility to really issue this wakeup call to the people of the world to be attentive to people who reside on the fringes of society. His whole life has been situated in the context of people who are struggling, people who are poor. His whole life in Latin America has put him face to face with people in abject poverty. He knows how to engage with them. I don’t believe we can simply preach on caring for people who are poor with any credibility unless we have journeyed with them ourselves.”

His message, she said, is “spiritually exhilarating” to those who work directly with people who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged.

“It’s both profound and practical,” said Ralph McCloud, director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. “Pope Francis talks about the importance of encountering, listening, walking with. It’s profound because that’s pretty much what Jesus did. He asked people to share with him what was bothering them.”

Pope Francis’ insistence on encountering people who are in poverty “in a very real way affirms the work of CCHD,” McCloud said. The campaign, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ domestic anti-poverty effort, offers grants to community-based organizations that include the people they serve in their leadership.

“That’s by rule,” McCloud said. “It’s the low-income people themselves who tell us what their struggles are. We make deliberate efforts to encounter, listen. It’s also about forging relationships, recognizing the shared humanity of everybody. My future and my destiny is tied up in your destiny. It’s the importance of walking together, accompaniment.”

Empowering people

Lourdes Flores, executive director of ARISE Adelante, an organization that works with immigrants in the colonias of southern Texas, near the Mexican border, said everything Pope Francis has said and done with the intention of bringing people on the margins of society into the center of the Church’s concern gives her hope and confidence.

Pope Francis inaugurates shelter
Pope Francis inaugurates a new shelter, day center and soup kitchen for the poor in Palazzo Migliori across the street from St. Peter’s Square in 2019. The shelter, funded by the papal almoner’s office, was staffed by volunteers from the Community of Sant’Egidio and was inaugurated in time for the 2019 World Day of the Poor. CNS photo/Vatican Media

“It assures me that we’re on the right track,” Flores said. “It gives us that assurance that we do need to continue attending to marginalized people, attending to the people who are the most vulnerable, that need a helping hand, that need opportunities, that are seeking an open door. There are people who are willing to go out to those areas that are marginalized, that are willing to take that extra mile. What Pope Francis says … it’s extra encouragement that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.”

ARISE Adelante works to empower people, especially women, in the communities they serve, offering everything from English and citizenship classes to children’s programming to Spanish-speaking immigrants and their families, and its practice is to draw its leadership and hire staff from those communities.

“We want to empower people,” Flores said. “Yes, they are in a circumstance where it’s difficult or it’s challenging, but that doesn’t mean they have to wait for handouts of things. They can speak for themselves, they can speak for their community. We are here to provide that encouragement.”

Once people find their voices, Flores said, “it’s definitely a change, the effect of hope on self-esteem. It’s also a domino effect. As they see themselves having high self-esteem, they want to share that with others, with family and with neighbors. Then they become that light for others.”

Mayra Vaquera, who works in ARISE Adelante’s finance department and as a community organizer, said the organization has been “a school.”

“If you ask anyone from the staff or from the community, some of us didn’t finish high school, didn’t finish college,” Vaquera said. “Here we keep learning every day. That is what we want the community to do as well. Our teaching extends.”

It has extended to Eva Soto, who is originally from Veracruz, Mexico. She crossed the border with her husband and three children, and now has two more. Soto participates in classes at ARISE Adelante, leads some workshops and shares her story with people who come to witness what is happening at the border.

When she first went to ARISE six or seven years ago, she was depressed and timid, she said.

“I didn’t have the words to say,” she said.

“She couldn’t move forward or seek opportunities,” Flores said, translating Soto’s words from Spanish. “When she came to ARISE, she felt very free.”

Pope Francis greets patient
Pope Francis greets a patient at a pediatric center in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2015. The center was renovated and expanded with the support fromthe pope’s charitable funds and donations from hundreds of thousands of other donors. CNS photo/Vatican Media


‘Stirring up our consciences’

Sister Donna said the ongoing worldwide synod, in which dioceses around the world have been asked to listen to not just people in the pews, but also the people on the streets and in the hospitals and homeless shelters, about how the Church can better walk with them, demonstrates Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter. The process will continue until the bishops gather in 2023 to discuss what they have heard in the “synod on synodality.”

“In the synod that has just opened, he’s really invited all of us to go to those margins of society, to go to those places where people are suffering, where people are hurting, where people are very poor or perhaps they are very aged or mentally ill — in some way they are challenged, the outcasts of our world. Not only to go there, but to listen to what they have to tell us about their pain and about what the Church can do.”

Sometimes that can be a difficult message for Catholics to hear, CCHD’s McCloud said.

“It’s a very radical message,” he said “It’s calling us to be different than we’ve ever been. If we took it seriously, we’d interact with our brothers and sisters differently, we’d shop differently, we’d eat differently, we’d attend neighborhood meetings differently. It is challenging and it’s uncomfortable.”

“Anybody who is preaching the truth and the candor and the credibility of the Gospel is going to be disturbing to some people, maybe to most of us,” Sister Donna agreed. “Pope Francis, through his preaching, is really stirring up our consciences. He can make us feel uncomfortable. What am I doing? Am I following the Gospel with the radicality that Pope Francis is calling us all to, or am I not?”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Practical tips

For Catholics who want to follow the teaching of Pope Francis, to encounter people who are poor and at the margins but don’t know how, Catholics who minister to them offered this advice:

“People who have never met a poor person in their life are going to have a hard time making sense of Pope Francis’ mandate to go to listen to people on the margins,” Sister Donna said.

“You go to where the pain is,” McCloud said. “It’s different than sitting on the couch with the remote control. Embrace the whole idea that you’re not familiar, that there is struggle and there are people who are having difficulties, and then go act on it in a very nonjudgmental way. Go to the places where you know poverty exists. If you’re afraid and you’re not comfortable with it, look to the agencies that can help you. There are any number of them.”

“Open your eyes. If you walk down the street in a city, it’s as simple as what happens if you pass someone on the street who is homeless. Do we ignore them, pretend they’re not there, that they’re invisible?” Sister Donna said.

“What Pope Francis is inviting us to do in the synod process is listening, it’s seeking out stories,” said Mancini from the Diocese of St. Cloud. “Even if we can’t have that physical encounter with someone, there are so many places to seek out the stories of those who are struggling.”

When you have listened, she suggested, try retelling the story, even just to yourself, as if it is your own story.

“You’re listening for the details and the emotions and not to try to poke holes in it.”

Share and pray
“The Bible says, and as Pope Francis preaches, be generous, to be people of prayer, to attend to those people who are sad and also hungry. To be generous in prayer and in contributions, and also to let go of the things that you have, even though it’s hard. If you have two coats, share one. If you have two pairs of shoes, share one,” said Soto from ARISE Adelante.

Go back
“When we go into a community to do a survey and then we go back, people are surprised,” ARISE Adelante’s Flores said. “They are used to people coming once and never coming back. Sometimes when you knock on the door, they won’t open it. Sometimes you have to knock again.”