Francis and the world: poverty

[ by Charles Cameron — “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor” in the context of a pope named Francis — the tremendous possibilities & complexities of the situation — proposal for a roundtable ]


St Francis: his patchwork habit, and a portrait by El Greco


There’s a comedy routine going the innernet rounds featuring Sarah Silverman, in which she suggests “Sell the Vatican, feed the world” as her solution to world hunger. How can I put this? It’s funny if you like gross, and gross if you prefer fine — which is my side of the coin, so I won’t inflict her video on you, through you can click through and see it.

More seriously there’s the Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In his book The Seduction of the Spirit (pp 244-46), Cox has a great fictional press release that begins:

Rome and Geneva, Oct. 5, 1975, UPI. In a historic joint encyclical issued today by both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, both religious bodies announced that they were beginning “forthwith” to divest themselves of all earthly possessions. The unprecedented pastoral letter, the first ever issued by both groups at once, was known in Rome as Lucrum Salax, after the first two words in its Latin text, “dirty money.” In Geneva the encyclical, recently adopted by a special session of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, appeared in French, German, English, Russian and Swahili. The document is signed, shattering another precedent, not only by Pope Paul VI and several other members of the WCC’s Central Committee, it also bears the signatures of hundreds of laymen from various parts of the world, including Juan Gonzales, a parishioner of San Martin de Porres, a small Catholic church in Bolivia, and by Franklin P. Jones, a sharecropper and a deacon in the Mount Pigsah A.M.E. Zion Church of Meridian, Mississippi. The statement was released today, it was explained, because October fifth is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi who, it was pointed out by Vatican and WCC theologians, actually did obey the command of Jesus to sell all his worldly goods and follow him. …

Behind both Silverman and Cox, there’s the instruction Christ gives to the man who “had great possessions” who asked him what more – beyond following the commandments – he needed to do to inherit eternal life:

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

Saint Francis of Assisi famously took that suggestion seriously and acted on it. And now we have a pope who has taken the name Francis as his papal name, who is known for his own forms of humility and austerity — and who made his priorities clear during his first press conference:

I would like a poor church and a church for the poor.


Saint Francis, whose name the Pope has taken, was known as the “poverello” or little poor one, and the new pope’s choice of name, according to the Vaticanista John Allen Jr, signifies “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church.”

Simplicity and lack of ostentation would seem to be both habitual with and characteristic of Pope Francis too, of whom it has been said, “This is a man who goes into the shantytowns and cooks with the people … I think the world is going to discover a very new style of being pope.”

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