Editor’s Note: The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” The views expressed in this column belong to Martin.
It was the strongest language I can remember a pope using about the rights of the poor and about social justice.
In a stunning, nearly revolutionary, speech on Thursday in Bolivia, Pope Francis said that working for justice is not simply a moral obligation. For Christians, it is a commandment.
“It is about giving to the poor and to people what is their right.” Moreover, we cannot be content to stop at simple charity, when “a few drops fall whenever the poor shake a cup.” No, what we need is deeper. What we need is change.
The Pope who took his name from the Apostle of the Poor excoriated a world where the poor are stripped of their rights by a system in which they have no voice.
“Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?”
In fact, he said, labor, lodging and land (the “three Ls,” as he calls them) are “sacred rights.”
He went farther, calling for “structural change,” language sure not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.
He went farther still: Pope Francis didn’t stop at calling for radical economic reforms and a redoubling of our efforts to stand in solidarity with the poor. He also acknowledged the church’s role in the colonialist period in the most forceful terms imaginable:
“I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. … Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the church ‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.’ I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was Saint John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Where do these ideas come from? Where do these words come from? Where does this call for justice come from? Where does the urge to seek forgiveness come from?
From the same place. Or rather, from the same person: Jesus Christ.
There can be no doubt that Pope Francis is focusing, over and over, on Jesus’ invitation – or as the Pope says more accurately “commandment” – to care for the poor.
Jesus was born into poverty. He lived in a poor village. He worked in the carpentry trade; in his day, that ranked him below the peasantry. Later in his public ministry, the primary recipients of his preaching and often the very objects of that preaching were the poor.
The one litmus test he offers for entrance into heaven in the Gospel of Matthew was not how hard we pray, or how often we go to church, but how we treat the poor.
But a clarification: the Pope, as I see it, is not calling for the abolition of capitalism.
Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis used the vivid image of the church as a “field hospital,” which treats those who are ailing. Here the Pope is acting as the physician, diagnosing a sick patient.
Capitalism is, to my mind, the most efficient economic distributor of goods and services. But it is grossly imperfect. If you have any doubt of that, ask the billions of poor, who cry out for labor, land and lodging.
The urge to seek forgiveness also comes from Christ. Now, some Catholics will oppose the Pope’s blunt apology for sins and crimes in the colonial period, as there were those who opposed St. John Paul II when he issued apologies in his pontificate. Some Catholics will say that the church accomplished great good in the colonial period.
Indeed, I am a member of a religious order that, in my eyes, did heroic work among native peoples in North and South America, in the Far East and in Sub-Saharan Africa, to name just a few places where Jesuits have labored, often at the cost of their lives.
At a time when much of Europe considered the native peoples “savages,” my Jesuit brothers cared for them, learned their languages and advocated for them, leaving their homes behind to live and work among these native men, women and children.
But, as the Pope acknowledged, the church was also complicit in “grave sins” against native peoples. For these sins, apologies are important. And for the Christian, they are required. How else can one begin the reconciliation required for a just society? How else can one call oneself religious? Reconciliation with God demands reconciliation with one another.
In South America today, in his home, Pope Francis seemed unbound, liberated to speak his mind. He seemed, in a word, free.
It is the hallmark Jesuit virtue. Not piety, as some might think. Not scholarship, as others may believe. But freedom. The freedom to be who you are, to say what you believe and, above all, to proclaim the Good News, to the ends of the Earth.