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Pope Francis Puts The Poor Front And Center

Pope Francis blesses a child Sunday after the Holy Mass at St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican.
Andreas Solaro
AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis blesses a child Sunday after the Holy Mass at St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican.

Over the past week, Pope Francis has launched a crescendo of attacks on the global financial system and what he calls a "cult of money" that does not help the poor.

The 2-month-old papacy of Francis — the Argentina-born Jorge Bergoglio — is shaping up as a papacy focused on the world's downtrodden. And in sharp contrast with the two preceding papacies, this one even contains echoes of the Latin American liberation theology movement that John Paul II and Benedict XVI had repressed.

The new pope's popularity is growing day by day. When Francis appears in St. Peter's Square, the crowd shouts his name in every imaginable language. Women hold out their babies to be kissed; everyone wants to touch him.

Vatican security guards are at a loss as Pope Francis gets off his popemobile to shake hands, to hug and to be hugged.

"Bergoglio wants to be the priest that everybody wants to have in his parish, as confessor, as spiritual director," says church historian Alberto Melloni. "And what we have seen in these few weeks is the start of a pastoral papacy."

Deeply Concerned By Inequity

Francis has shed some of the most pompous symbols of papal power. The ornate Renaissance vestments, the golden crucifix and red shoes dear to Benedict have been put away.

And Francis has shunned the papal apartment. He still lives in a communal setting in a Vatican residence where he delivers daily homilies at early morning Mass.

Benedict's focus on theology has given way to more concrete issues, like poverty, Francis' main concern.

Vatican analyst Massimo Franco says Francis is "a true global pope," adding that, contrary to his predecessors, whose worldviews were shaped by 20th century European history, Francis is steeped in the global issues of today and of the future.

"His focus on slums — megacity slums — and his experience as archbishop of Buenos Aires is very telling because naturally he is focusing on the poor of great cities," Franco says. "That is a non-state actor [who is] going to be a very powerful one in the next dozen of years."

Francis has long been deeply concerned by what he calls the negative aspects of globalization.

On May 1 — International Workers' Day — the pope referred directly to the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people. He expressed anger at their $50 monthly wages.

"This is slave labor," he said.

"And I think of so many people who are jobless, often due to a purely bottom-line view of society, which seeks selfish profit without regard for social justice," he continued.

On Saturday, the pope zeroed in on the financial system.

"If investments and banks plunge, this is a tragedy," he said. "But if families are hurting" — he added ironically — "this is nothing."

Emphasis On Social Justice

Such statements echo liberation theology, an activist Catholic movement that was very present in Latin American slums, or favelas, in the 1960s and '70s, and which was sharply disciplined by John Paul II and his theological watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict — for its Marxist overtones.

Church historian Melloni says there were various schools of thought in liberation theology, and the Argentine cardinal embraced the least political.

"For Bergoglio, social justice is not a sort of service of the church, an external relations department oriented to those who are victims of injustice," says Melloni. "But it is part of the very essence of the church."

One of the pope's first acts was to unblock the beatification process of murdered El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, a martyr in Latin America. The process had languished under the two previous popes, allegedly because they considered Romero too close to liberation theology.

Leonardo Boff, a prominent liberation theologian silenced by John Paul, hails the Argentine pope as the harbinger of a new spring for the global church.

Vatican analysts are watching to see whether the change in this papacy's style will be followed by a change in substance.

Francis inherited a church filled with problems and scandals, from the decline in the number of priests to clerical sex abuse scandals and corruption within the Vatican. One of his first actions has been widely welcomed: the appointment of a commission of cardinals — all but one from outside the Vatican — who will assist him in governing the church.

This is seen as the first implementation of the principle of collegiality — first put forth in the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago — that called for greater representation of the Catholic faithful in church governance.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.

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