Church of the poor

The election of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas to the presidency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines complements the renewal of the Catholic Church in our country that began with the elevation of Archbishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle to the College of Cardinals. Both are young, humble, prayerful and empowering.

Back to origins. In a larger sense, these two shepherds echo the simplicity and theology of reformist Pope Francis in the universal Church. Like him, they are great communicators in the new media—straightforward, uncomplicated and direct from the heart. They unravel the great mysteries of Christianity and the ponderous papal encyclicals via their plain, everyday language and their simple, austere lifestyle.

Newly elevated they may all have been and newly minted their messages may appear to be, in my humble view they really bring back the Church to its roots, to the original rock the Lord Jesus Christ founded and anchored it—a Church of the poor, by the poor and for the poor.

But what is the Church of the poor? Let me quote the answer of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) convened on Jan. 20-Feb. 17, 1991, to implement in our country the reforms proclaimed in 1962-65 by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II):

“A Church that embraces and practices the evangelical spirit of poverty which combines detachment from possessions with a profound trust in the Lord as the only source of salvation… A Church [that] will courageously defend and vindicate the rights of the poor and the oppressed even when doing so will mean alienation or persecution from the rich and powerful… A Church where nobody is so poor as to have nothing to give, and nobody so rich as to have nothing to receive.”

Indeed, the new leaders are steering the Church back to Jesus Christ who identified Himself with the poor—“Truly, I say to you: whenever you did this to one of the least, of these my brothers, you did it to me… Truly, I say to you: whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Mt. 25:40,45).

Unusual leader. By reaching out to the poor and liberating them from their misery, our new shepherds echo Jesus Christ’s mission: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and announce the Lord’s year of mercy” (Lk 4:18).

When Pope Francis forsook his gilded seat, I was reminded that Jesus’ throne was a wooden cross, His crown was a bouquet of thorns, His scepter a lowly reed, and His ring a rusty nail driven through His palm. Nonetheless, Jesus made it absolutely clear who He was, what His objectives were, and how He intended to accomplish them.

Jesus explained in different ways to different people. To His disciples, He taught loftily, authoritatively. In His sermon on the mount, He leaned in favor of the poor, the sorrowing, the simple-hearted and the peacemakers. He condemned the hypocrite, the arrogant, the proud and the self-righteous. He forgave the repentant and the simple-hearted.

To the nondisciples, Jesus spoke in parables, which were intended “to enable the listener to discover something for himself.” They awakened faith and made the nonbeliever discover the truth without being lectured on.

This is why most of his parables ended with questions: “Which of these three, do you think, made himself neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” was the question He asked in the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:36); or “Now, what will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” in the parable of the tenants (Lk 20:16).

Courage and conviction. Jesus was a leader of enormous courage and unbreakable conviction. When He walked the earth 2,000 years ago, there was no freedom of speech, no freedom to dissent, no freedom to oppose. Group conformity was the standard of truth and virtue.

But Jesus was “a man who had the courage of his convictions. No tradition was too sacred to be questioned. No authority was too great to be contradicted… No assumption was too fundamental to be changed,” wrote Albert Nolan in his book, “Jesus Before Christianity.”

Jesus was a servant-leader who led by example, teaching His disciples, “As you know, the so-called rulers of the nation act as tyrants and their great ones oppress them. But it shall not be so among you; whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall make himself slave of all. Think of the Son of Man who has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life to redeem many” (Mk 10:42-45).

To show that He was ready to perform the humblest of service, He washed the feet of His apostles, telling them, “You call me Master and Lord, and you are right for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also must wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:13-14).

Jesus was a leader of intense prayer and unbending faith. The Bible is replete with stories of Jesus praying. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed so intensely that “great drops of blood formed like sweat and fell to the ground” (Lk 22:44).

In sum, the renewal of the Church is an ever continuing process and does not necessarily denigrate the old order. In the same manner, parents are not diminished when their children surpass them.

Congratulations to His Excellency, His Eminence and His Holiness for renewing the Church and bringing it back to Jesus Christ.

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