Church of the poor: Agents of liberation

John BattleInspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: John Battle, former director of Church Action on Poverty, on how he is helping Catholics respond to Pope Francis’ call.

A recent conference at Leeds Trinity University, set up by the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Oxford in conjunction with the Leeds Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, explored what Pope Francis could mean for us by calling us to become “a poor Church for the poor”.

Father Michael Czerny S.J came over from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to set out what Pope Francis has in mind, and Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation responded from the context of what we understand poverty to be in modern Britain. Fr Czerny spelt out the need for us to really “open our eyes” to the reality of poverty and to make sure we did not seriously “overlook” or simply ignore the poor by reducing them to non-persons in our midst. He suggested that there could well be two conferences going on at the same time, ours discussing what poverty means and another gathering in another part of the city, of the poor trying to cope with the challenges of survival themselves. He suggested it was time to merge the two conferences into one.

To some extent pope Francis’ challenge could be lost in the translation of prepositions; are we to be a Church “of the poor”, “for the poor” (speaking on their behalf ) or “with the poor”? These distinctions could prove crucial in practice.

Actually at the same time as the Leeds Trinity conference with its workshops and speakers, there was a get-together in an inner-city community centre of people and families driven to food banks by sanctions to their benefits and cuts in their family income support. They discussed the extension of the local credit union to displace the loan sharks.
Every Friday morning at the New Wortley Community centre our men’s walking group sets off on an ‘urban walk’ to get out of the local tower blocks – which gained notoriety as the centre of the highest male suicide rate in the country. We walk round for a couple of hours together, and then go back to the community centre to share a midday meal. Our group is informal. All men are welcome but particularly those at home, unemployed (and from all backgrounds of work and skills) and with challenges of mental health, drugs or drink, or simply trying to survive alone. As we have walked and talked, friendships have developed, we have initiated other activities, such as music and cooking groups, and moved into practical advice and support work in the community centre. It has become a mutual supportive group which is still extending. Moreover, it is good fun and keeps us human.

In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spells out “why I want a Church that is poor and for the poor”. He writes:

“Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilises is not an unruly activism but above all an attentiveness which considers the other in a certain sense as ‘one with ourselves’. This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good. This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, in their ways of living the faith.”

This theme of the need for “loving attentiveness” linked the “Poor Church of the Poor” conference to the Wortley Men’s walking group for me, and reminded me of the inspiring words of Jean Vanier:

“If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else; that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own inner hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal will be the healer. If you let yourself be moulded thus by the cry of the poor and accept their healing friendship, then they may guide your footsteps into community and lead you into a new vision of humanity, a new world order, not governed by power and fear but where the poor and weak are at the centre. They will lead you into the kingdom Jesus speaks of”.

There is a world of difference between praying for rather than with the poor, and the ‘option for the poor’ surely means taking up the cause of the poor and oppressed in ways which respect them as agents of their own liberation and ours.

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