Monday, April 15, 2013

Pope and Poverty

Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio


I’ve been thinking about writing about the new Pope from Argentina ever since his election a few weeks ago. Despite some carping from typical quarters, Pope Francis I seems to have gotten off to a good start. His choice of name, simplicity of lifestyle, and concern for the poor has elicited worldwide applause.

Nevertheless, I worry that many of his early fans might turn against him when he cannot fulfill all their expectations. No one man can do it all and ever since Vatican II Catholics have been continually reminded that the world’s problems are everyone’s responsibility. It was probably always wrong for the laity to think that everything was up to the clerical leaders of the Church, but in the last few decades it has become increasingly difficult for the ordinary person to say, “why don’t they, meaning the clergy, do something about this or that?”

Still, it is clear that the Pope can play a major role. Pope Francis I has already expressed his belief that the poor should be a major concern of the Church but why should his attitude be a surprise to anyone, or regarded as a step in a new direction?

But how are the poor to be helped? I think some of the early plaudits for the Pope came from those who believe that the Catholic Church has vast financial resources or assets that could be sold or used to benefit the poor. It’s as if they want Michelangelo’s Pieta to be auctioned off and the proceeds used to benefit the needy.  Or, perhaps they believe that chalices and other religious articles should be melted down and sold for cash.
A recent news article in a local newspaper gave front-page attention to the disparity between rich and poor even in the United States. The article focused on the plight of a single mother living with her four young children in low income housing in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the richest communities in America.

Here is her story in a nutshell. She grew up in a household without her father. She claims that as a young girl she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. She became a rebellious teenager and traveled with a bad crowd. She had a baby out of wedlock at around the age of 15, and when she turned 18 both she and the baby were kicked out of the house by her mother. Since then she has always looked for work and tried to better herself. Somehow, she managed to take classes but ran up a student loan debt of about $25000.
At the same time she found a new boyfriend and they quickly had three more children even though he did not have a good job. Recently she had a fight with the boyfriend and kicked him out of her apartment even though she still claims to love him. It would appear that he has no intention of supporting his children. Of course, they never bothered to marry.

How does she survive? She lives in low income subsidized housing in Greenwich at a cost of $50 per month. It would be difficult for an ordinary person to find a rental in Greenwich for less than $2000 per month. As a resident of Greenwich, her children can attend one of the best school systems in the country at virtually no cost to her, especially since she pays no taxes. She gets about $650 per month in food stamp assistance. She and her children are most likely eligible for free medical care under Medicaid.

Let’s add it up. She gets housing assistance worth about $24000 per year. If her four children had to go to a private school, it would easily cost about $15000 each or $60000 per year. She gets almost $8000 per year for food stamps. A medical insurance plan comparable to Medicaid would easily cost over $10000 per year for a family her size.

I’m not blaming this young woman or others in similar situations. She has had a hard life and with little apparent guidance or assistance. In fact, she seems always to have looked for work, and she certainly had the smarts to find housing in Greenwich, a choice she made so that her children could grow up in a community largely free of crime and drugs.

But how is the Pope or any other religious leader to help her? She certainly could use more income but it would appear that more than anything else she could have benefitted from some spiritual or moral guidance during her lifetime. Did anyone ever tell her that bedding down with a man who lacked both the will and the skill to support a family was a bad idea?

More than a dispenser of alms the Pope has to be a spiritual and moral leader. One of the things that I have found most objectionable about the press coverage of the new Pope is the way in which his election is being used as a kind of slap at his two predecessors, John Paul II and the recently retired Benedict XVI. By implication, it would appear as if they did little to help the poor.
If that is the case, why are the fastest growing and most dynamic parts of the Catholic Church found in the poorest areas of the world? Why, for example, is Catholicism growing by leaps and bounds in Africa despite often vicious persecution? Maybe the poor of the world, who are not so fortunate as to live in Greenwich Connecticut, have looked to the previous Popes as liberators. It can be argued that by his efforts to bring freedom to his native land of Poland, Pope John Paul Ii did more for the world’s poor that any Pope in history.

Just go to this link and view the Polish company of Les Miserable performing “One More Day” in a Warsaw mall that looks like it could be the Mall of America. Before the Pope’s initiative, Poland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Maybe the people at the Mall turned out to be a little more materialistic than the Pope might have desired, but they are no longer poor. Video can also be viewed below.


  1. Thank you for posting, as too often the public looks for the negative side of things. You are clear in saying the woman profiled could use some spiritual direction.

  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment.