As we celebrate Easter, here is a piece I wrote for the Herald on 4 March. Wishing all of you a joyful Easter filled with hope.
Why we need to become the church of the poor
By the end of this month, we could see a new pope chosen by the cardinals gathering in Rome.
With all the serious issues and scandals buffeting the church these days, it is not the proudest moment in the church’s history.
Perhaps the biggest issue, amidst all the problems confronting the church today is, how relevant is the church to larger society. If it has ceased to be relevant for a large majority of people, then the least we could do is find out why and act on it.
When addressing the question of relevance, the first question to ask is, is the church in touch with “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted”, as the watershed Second Vatican Council had hoped the church would be? For it is these very same joys and hopes, these griefs and anxieties that the Council hoped would be shared by the followers of Christ. This was the first line in the Pastoral Convention on the Church in the Modern World or Gaudiem et Spes, a key Vatican II document issued in 1965.
Or is the church more cosy and comfortable with the concerns of the wealthy and the powerful in society instead?
Take the average parish. Are its leaders aware of “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of the parishioners and the people around the parish?
We live in a materialistic world where the excesses of capitalism are evident, where private profit has unfortunately undermined social and community solidarity. Now we can see a growing gulf between the rich and the poor. As workers’ wages remain depressed, people are struggling to make ends meet. More and more households are falling into debt as they struggle to cope with housing loans (for increasingly more expensive houses), car loans, study loans, medical bills, and credit card debt.
Because of the income inequality and the rising household debt, many people are struggling to cope. Are we as the church concerned about, or even aware of, the challenges faced by many ordinary people – including migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and indigenous people who have lost their lands?
It is time to return to the Gospel, the good news to the poor, that Jesus proclaimed. This is something a church with a Euro-centric vision may not be fully sensitive too, given the vastly different socio-economic milieus – though even in Europe, urban poverty and social deprivation are visible. But the poverty and environmental degradation are even more acute in large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. And it is precisely in these continents that the church is most dynamic and flourishing.
There are two categories of the poor: the poor in Spirit, as found in the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew and the socially and materially poor, according to the beatitudes of Luke.
The poor in Spirit are those who have renounced the material world voluntarily, i.e. evangelical poverty. The involuntarily poor, on the other hand, are the victims of exploitation and unjust economic (and now environmental) policies. Often they are the victims of those who have profited immensely from the system through unjust economic policies.
The Church has to identify emphatically – in teaching and in practice – with these two groups of the poor if it wants to regain its prophetic relevance in the world today.
In this regard, the church should not solely be preoccupied with its centre in Rome; it needs to also recognise and pay equal heed to its frontier missions at the periphery. In a sense, we can see a parallel in the very early church, which was centred in Jerusalem but which also had Paul leading its frontier ministry through his encounters with strange lands and foreign communities. That led to a conflict in vision between the centre and the periphery (the Petrine-Pauline ministries and their dynamics). Paradoxically, those dynamics enriched the church spiritually while making it more relevant to frontier lands beyond the centre.
These dynamics, even tension, between the centre and the periphery are not something to be avoided but should perhaps be seen as a sign of the Spirit at work. For this to happen today, bishops and theologians especially those at the frontier need to uphold evangelical poverty while identifying and expressing solidarity with the materially poor – the victims of economic exploitation and political oppression. For it is with the latter that Christ identified himself most closely.
The upholding of evangelical poverty will also enhance the church’s prophetic social teaching on justice to the poor so that it rings with the voice of authenticity; otherwise such teachings would only smack of hypocrisy.
Similarly, the role of the religious, who have adopted evangelical poverty and in many instances work at the frontier, needs to be respected. Their concerns and experience arising from their encounters with the poor should be listened to. They are the ones at the periphery who are perhaps most closely aware of the concerns and anxieties of the materially poor and socially excluded.
As for the laity, churches should listen to the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the poor and afflicted among them and recognise the presence of Christ in them. Among the laity too, both women and men need to be empowered with new leadership roles.
It is at the frontiers of the church, beyond the parish walls, that we will encounter other Christian groups and other faiths. These encounters should be encouraged for it is through such encounters with our fellow sojourners that we will further enrich and deepen our own spiritual heritage while strengthening the bonds of brother/sisterhood.