A responsibility to the poor

Wed, Mar 20, 2013, 06:00

Six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes, 11 heads of government, 132 official delegations, and some 150,000 people attended yesterday’s papal inaugural Mass. It was inevitably as much an affair of stateas a gathering of the faithful, and Pope Francis had words for world leaders, a call to be “protectors of one another and of the environment.”

But his main emphasis, both in what he said and how, was on the role of the pope – by implication, of the church – to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but “especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.”

It was an acknowledgment, a mea culpa , that the church had lost touch. To reconnect he would lead by example, walking simply the way of Christ, as one of them, speaking in their language of their experiences and needs. Not by reforming the church, diluting principles or traditional understandings – what this traditionalist omitted was as important as what he said.

That reaching out is reflected in his papal, motto, “ Miserando atque eligendo ” – “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him” – words of St Bede on Jesus’s call on tax collector Matthew to follow him. “Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men ... This conversion of one tax collector,” St Bede recorded, “gave many men, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon ... No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation.”

Francis’s words and style are simple and moving; a breath of fresh air and hope. But will they suffice to meet the challenges faced by a church that has in some respects lost its way?