The Pope’s Talking, Let’s Hope Somebody is Listening!

Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 16, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)  April 16, 2016.

New Orleans    Pope Francis isn’t perfect.  None of them are.  All the same, it’s hard not to root for the guy, give him an attaboy and hope he pushes the Catholic Church and its parishioners to demand more social justice and social change.

The Pope issued something called an apostolic exhortation which is several degrees lower than an encyclical and doesn’t claim infallibility but is a guidance and, in this case, both a call to action and a word of caution, particularly to conservatives in the church.  The key takeaway was the Pope’s statement that the “defense of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” but “equally sacred, however are the lives of the poor, those already born,” along with the elderly and other victims whether of human trafficking or displaced migrants.

Not surprisingly, the Pope is not signing up for membership in Planned Parenthood, but he is saying that the one-hundred percenters on this issue need to step up on the issues of poverty and the demand for more equality and equity as an expression of their faith.  He argued that an all-consuming attention to abortion is “a harmful ideological error,” especially when it deflates and devalues fights for social change or claims that the struggles for change are “superficial, worldly, materialistic, communist or populist.”  Big amen to that point!

Hitting home, the Pope stated clearly that there is no claim to good living and holiness “that would ignore injustice.”  He was clear that he was talking about progress in dealing with economic inequality in his exhortation.  Give him another big amen there!

Furthermore, the Pope argued against false equivalencies.  He lashed out at church members that would claim dealing with poverty or the desperation of migrants was somehow a secondary or lesser issue compared to what he called “bioethical questions,” meaning abortion and right-to-life issues.  In a gut punch he referred to such comparisons as something a politician might say, “but not a Christian,” which has to rank in the religious community as a beatdown.

So, the Pope isn’t perfect, God knows.  Critics are clear that his work has not matched his statements about sexual abuse by clericals within the church for example.  Nonetheless, we have to embrace him as a fellow traveler when it comes to the fight for justice and equality for all people.  His voice has power and range there.  We need to hope it’s heard and heeded.  We need all the help we can get.

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Pope Francis Forces a Rethinking on Panhandlers and Homeless

Pope Francis with homeless Jesus statue. (Vatican Photo)

New Orleans   Living and working in urban areas around the world, whether we admit it or not, we all adopt highly individualized personal policies about how to deal with personal interactions with panhandlers and the homeless, whether we admit it or not.

Pope Francis speaking to a homeless zine in Italy sort of shamed almost all those urban survival strategies with some very simple statements that serve as a reminder that a basic moral code and compass still deserves a central place in modern life. The Pope stated plainly that it was always the right thing to do to give to the homeless. Period. When asked if that was true even if you thought it was just going for the next bottle of wine, he replied that if that was the only joy being felt in their lives, then, essentially, who are we to begrudge or judge. And, that’s not all, he argued when you loosen the grip on those small pieces of change or that crumpled loose dollar, don’t just toss it over. He counsels that we at least look the person in the eyes or, if close enough, touch their arm or hands, so that we provide some basic dignity to the exchange.

I can guarantee you that none of that has been my policy. Around the world, where poverty is epidemic, I have specialized in avoided eyes, straight back, and unbroken stride in Latin America, India, and Africa. I’ve never wanted to be stereotyped as a rich America, rather than an organizer. I’ve rationalized that I’ve given my life at the office and in the streets, so to speak, so I’ve essentially punched my own ticket for a free pass. Even at home in the US, I’ve simply nodded or dismissed direct requests with a sorry and a quick slip. On drive-by requests at stoplights, I’ve just averted my eyes and kept driving. My general policy has been never to really start, because where will it stop.

Contrary to what believers might still hold, the Pope is not perfect and neither is the Church, but that doesn’t assuage my feeling that my position has to change. Next to the Pope’s advice it seems small, cold, and, worse, inhumane. His position confronts my own view of myself. I love people and am dedicated to my work with and for them and their inalienable rights to dignity and respect, yet the Pope has called to question my position as a casual callousness that denies not only dignity and respect, but basic humanity, which would seem the least we have to offer our fellow travelers in this world.

So what’s to be done? I’m not suddenly, Mr. Moneybags or Daddy Warbucks, and I still want to believe my life’s work is still my real contribution, but my rationality for not engaging and doing my small part has been punctured. We have an often neglected family plan we picked up from a friend of saving every five dollar bill for whatever. Looks like I’ll me putting all my change into a special Pope Francis pile for the homeless and panhandlers trying to make it the best way they can, just as the rest of us are doing.

And, rather than a handout, which I hate, I can certainly give a handshake, which speaks more loudly than my little money to our universal condition, sharing not just the street but as fellow members of the teeming humanity of the world. It seems the least any of us can do.

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