Does Pope Francis Still Matter?

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A few days ago, June 16 to be exact, Pope Francis fired another broadside, giving yet another sharp reminder about poverty and the Gospel. In his morning Mass message, the Pope unequivocally placed the issue of poverty, or the Christian’s obligation to help the poor, as central to the faith itself.

The context, though, around his message was a bit ironic to me. The Pope stressed that focusing on poverty and sacrificing for the poor are the heart of the Gospel, not signs of communism. I suppose that communism in other countries may have a different nuance than that in the Philippines. In the first place, communism is not considered a pillar in the fight against poverty. If the priests and the Church would keep pounding on poverty and sacrificing for the poor, they will not be mistaken as being communistic.

But that, precisely, is the irony. The Catholic Church in the Philippines is not giving enough focus on poverty. Pope Francis would have to keep repeating his message about the poor, about poverty, about the primacy of raising the poor out pf poverty, because that is certainly not the focus of the Church in the Philippines. It does not mean the Church does not care about the poor or the battle against poverty, but it seems the priorities are different from that of the Pope’s.

The words that Pope Francis used to deliver his point must be upsetting to many, especially the hierarchy of the Church and to the Catholic laity. I suspect that not many will take the message of the Pope as marching orders and will, in fact, gloss over it instead. I do not yet notice Church officials going out of their way to discuss among themselves and their parishioners what are truly fighting words from the Pope. That’s why I am beginning to ask if Pope Francis still matters to the Philippine Catholic Church and to Catholics in the Philippines who are in a position to help the poor.

“Poverty is precisely at the heart of the Gospel. If we were to remove poverty from the Gospel, people would understand nothing about Jesus’ message,” the Pope said, according to Vatican Radio. I remember this same message delivered by the Pope in a Mass here in the Philippines last January, a mass for the clergy, if I am not mistaken. Judging from public statements and programs aggressively promoted by the Church, I do not believe the Pope and his audience understood each other.

Before I am told that the Church does have the necessary concern for the poor and has several continuing programs intended to help the poor, I would like to say that this is so. On a personal basis, I have encountered priests and nuns who quietly but unceasingly dedicate their lives to easing the burden of the poor. But I am talking about the institutional Church, its hierarchy, and the general posture of Catholics who are non-poor. I am saying that poverty and sacrificing for the poor are not central to their lives, not if we go by what is publicly said, what is publicly done, what is publicly pursued with consistency and passion.

Unfortunately for the Church, many bishops and lay communities showed they can be aggressive and determined if they want to be, if they believe they should be. For a number of years, the RH Bill that ultimately became a law took a front and center position that had many bishops go belligerent and threatening, that had many lay communities making noise, even staging rallies, as they did battle with their pro-choice counterparts, most of whom were Catholics, too. This is the standard that I use when I say that the institutional Church and the lay communities it influences give priority to an issue. Sad to say, the concern against poverty badly pales in comparison.

But wait, there is more to this very recent message of the Pope. He added that being fully Christian means being rich in spirit, faith, the Word, wisdom and zeal – things that Jesus has taught and offered all people. And the Pope then drops a nuclear bomb of a message when he said that this huge amount of “wealth in the heart” also impacts the wallet, because “when faith doesn’t reach your pockets, it is not a genuine faith.”

May I repeat, as a pointed reminder to myself and other concerned Catholics, that “when faith doesn’t reach the pockets, it is not a genuine faith.” Fighting words, are these not? Imagine if this oneness with the poor, this boldness in their defense, this primacy among other concerns, imagine if the institutional Catholic Church of the Philippines would be in integrity with its own Pope, poverty and hunger could suddenly find effective solutions.

It would seem by the noise that high-profile Church personalities would make in the country that other priorities occupy their energy and resources. Poverty is a touchy subject with the Catholic Church in the Philippines because it has a historical role in causing it. Its traditional partnership with government, especially the Spanish government when the Filipino people lost ownership and control of their lands to the foreign master, gave the Church abundant perks at the expense of the dispossessed.

Poverty has defined faces in our country—landlessness, homelessness and hunger. It is true that the Catholic Church has lost much of its wealth despite reports of how much assets it retains. However, the Church has lands that it can never use, only sell, maybe more land that in size can substantially reduce the landlessness of our poor. Until the Church confronts itself with this reality, it cannot be a credible champion of the poor.

The wealth of the nation is largely in the hands of Catholics. The lands stolen from the people during the colonial times remain in the hands of the state and the Church. Poverty in the Philippines is a religion in crisis.



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