A Church that is Poor, and for the Poor

Q&A with Fr. Jim Martin on Pope Francis

by Stacy Smith

Book excerpt: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

Pope Francis is a first in many ways—the first pope from the Southern hemisphere, the first from the Americas, and the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years. He is the first Jesuit pope and also the first to remember in his chosen papal name St. Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his service in and among the poor.

With so many firsts, the pope’s first public interview was nothing short of sensational. Drawing on a slate of questions from Jesuit journals around the world, Pope Francis spoke openly about everything from his faith and his favorite artists to political topics and the church he dreams of. Those journals, among them America Magazine, created instant headlines when they published the interview simultaneously. The book A Big Heart Open to God features the full papal interview and other resources, including a spiritual reflection by Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large at America. Stacy Smith spoke with Fr. Jim about the historic interview and the pope’s views on poverty and the church.

Stacy Smith: What is Pope Francis saying about the poor and the church?

Fr. Jim Martin: He is constantly speaking about the poor and the church. Even from the selection of his name, the very first decision he had to make a few seconds after he was elected, he chose Francis, the apostle of the poor. Then a day or two after his election, he was speaking with journalists about how he wants a church that is poor, and for the poor. In all of his major letters and statements he has spoken about the need to care for the poor and to question the structures that keep them poor, so he’s emphasizing social justice as well. He couldn’t be any stronger even if he tried.

Often when the church is called to the service of the poor, we think of soup kitchens and mission trips, but social structures are more complex. Where are these new challenges for the Catholic Church and for other Christians who look to Pope Francis for leadership?

One challenge is the traditional Gospel call to care for the least of our brothers and sisters, as we see in Matthew 25. Then there is the more recent Catholic social teaching challenge of questioning structures that are keeping people poor. And there is also the very recent challenge of income inequality and looking at our economic systems. Now I would say, as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and someone who worked at General Electric in corporate finance, that capitalism is the most efficient way to distribute goods. However, it is not perfect! One of the things Pope Francis asks us to look at is these imperfections and ways of making our countries and societies more just, particularly when it comes to the marginalized and the poor.

The idea of a “preferential option for the poor” is part of the Catholic social teachings you mentioned. What does preferential option for the poor mean?

It means that when we are making decisions about the economy, society and even about our church, we look to the poor to the first. We ask ourselves: How will these decisions affect the poor and are we giving them preference? We do this for many reasons, but first because we have a responsibility to take care of people. Many people who are poor and marginalized are so not because of their own agency, and so this caring for the poor is what Jesus asks of us. This call is very clear in Catholic social teaching and it’s very clear in the Gospels. In Matthew 25, Jesus doesn’t say that you will be judged by how you treat your friends, or how you treat your people above you, or the wealthy. He says that you will be judged by how you treat the least of our brothers and sisters. And he talks about simple things like giving someone a glass of water. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer.

How does access to health care fit in to these social teachings?

Pope Francis himself has not spoken about health care that much, but it is a Catholic social teaching that says everyone deserves certain basic needs like food, shelter and clothing. Among those is decent health care as a fundamental human right. The Book of James also says that if you tell someone, “Keep warm and well fed,” but do nothing about their physical needs, then what good is it? Similarly, you can’t say, “I hope you feel healthy,” if a person doesn’t have good health care. That is a part of the overall emphasis of Catholic social teaching: to provide basic rights for everyone as a way of respecting their human dignity.

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