The new Pope Francis said that he wanted to focus the church on service to the poor. At first this sounds wonderful. Which is why I’ve been trying to figure out why it is making me so uncomfortable.
First of all, I worry about defining the poor. What qualifies someone as being poor enough to deserve service? We are all poor in the sense that we all need each other. We all need love and caring and forgiveness. We all need to work with others – even when we work alone. We need forgiveness, we need others to enjoy us, we need others to appreciate what we try to do for them. We need them to remember us, we need them to share their insights and skills, we need support, even if it is to do no more than deliver our daily mail. Or email and social network messages. We all need that birthday card, that telephone call, that text message, that smile from a neighbor.
I also worry about this implication that I am a holier person, a better Christian, if I serve the poor. Why? Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am a creative physicist? if I discover how to use electricity? if I share a great musical talent? or paint great pictures ? if I develop a business that provides thousands of jobs? If I am a dedicated teacher on a good salary? Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am myself poor? Is being poor intrinsically better than being middle class? or even a rich philanthropist? Is it better for me to be poor or to serve the poor than to use my particular talents which may, actually, make a lot of money?
I worry too about what serving the poor as a primary focus pushes out of first place. I’m afraid that a goal like “serving the poor” still leaves too much room for discrimination – in terms of gender, ethnicity, color, religion, age. Of course I’m not against helping the poor. And I’m glad if a focus on serving the poor means that the Roman Church will be less obsessed with doctrinal issues like gay marriage, consenting homosexual relationships, birth control, papal infallibility, and the plethora of beliefs which the church has insisted are necessary for salvation, beliefs that seem to the Vatican are more critical to true Christianity than loving our fellow creatures.
But I’ve been around a long time, and I’m afraid it might not mean any of these things.
I would feel less uneasy if the pope had made love his primary focus. That would not have excluded giving a loaf of bread to someone in need, it would not have excluded teaching, or caring for the sick. But it would have been a great deal less patronizing. Which ones of us want to be “served” because we are poor? Look at the expression on the face of the young man whose foot is being kissed by the pope. Perhaps I am projecting, but what I see on that face is the expression of someone who is not at all sure he’s not being used. There’s no way I would want someone kissing my foot on the grounds that I’m among the needy poor. It’s demeaning.
Love, as a primary focus, instead of serving the poor, also would have made it much more obvious that discrimination in relation someone who is of a different religious, sexual, or ethnic persuasion is against the basic Christian commitment above all to love. It would not have distinguished between the poor and those who aren’t poor. It would not have suggested to the Christian who is “serving the poor” that he or she is in some way superior to those being served.
No matter what our talents, what our economic condition, what our social status, we all need to serve and to be served, we all need to be needed. And so I don’t like this materialist division between the poor and those who supposedly aren’t.
We are all in this together. We need each other.
We all need to love and to be loved.