Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Church of the Poor

When Elizabeth Seton began to talk about conversion to the Catholic Church, her family and friends objected that she was too refined to join those “dirty, filthy, red-faced” immigrants who made up the Catholic congregations in early nineteenth century New York.

Seton’s biographer Joseph Dirvin reminded his readers, “By far the greatest part of the congregation on Barclay Street was composed of poor immigrants, Irish, French and German; and it is no reflection on their piety and faith to record that they had as little manners and polish as they had of money.”

However splendid the European version of Catholicism, the early American Catholic community was an impoverished variant, which, Elizabeth’s family warned her, was “the offscourings of the people” and “a public nuisance.”

When Elizabeth Seton joined the Catholic Church in New York in 1805, she joined the Church of the poor.

When Dorothy Day joined the Catholic Church in New York in 1927, she joined a Church which had grown more respectable and even wealthy, but she became Catholic confident that her Catholic faith would support and strengthen her dedication to serving the poor.

Dorothy was chagrined by the Catholic Church’s wealth and its easy relationship with the state and with capitalism.

She wrote in her biography, “I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.”

In Dorothy’s mind the Catholic Church, despite its variants, was the Church of the poor.

And when he became the Bishop of Rome in 2013, Jorge Bergoglio once again affirmed the Church’s true orientation. In his first meeting with the press, Pope Francis said, “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor.”

This was the reason he took the name Francis, eager to identify with St. Francis of Assisi who embraced “Lady Poverty” as his constant companion.

Pope Francis dramatized his commitment to the poor publicly when he visited a slum area in Rio de Janeiro during his visit to Brazil and privately when in secret he visits poor neighborhoods in Rome.

Like his namesake, Pope Francis speaks and acts his message.

He said last Spring, “Real power is service…(Jesus) humbled himself unto death, even death on a cross for us, to serve us, to save us. And there is no other way in the Church to move forward. For the Christian, getting ahead, progress, means humbling oneself. If we do not learn this Christian rule, we will never, ever be able to understand Jesus’ true message on power.”

Pope Francis’ simplicity, candor, and openness reflect his words. He reminds his priests that if they are to be true pastors “the shepherd smell like the sheep.”

Peter Maurin, the man whom Dorothy Day calls the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to distill a great deal of thought and guidance into an “Easy Essay.” On one occasion Maurin, who both spoke about and lived a pauper’s life, offered this counsel:

If the Catholic Church
is not today
the dominant social dynamic force,
it is because Catholic scholars
have failed to blow the dynamite
of  the Church.

Catholic scholars
have taken the dynamite
of the Church,
have wrapped it up
in nice psychology,
placed it in an hermetic container
and sat on the lid.

It is about time
to blow the lid off
so the Catholic Church
may again become
the dominant social dynamic force.

Pope Francis and the legacies of Seton, Day, Maurin and others appear ready to light  that dynamite (exercise the power of service)  -- in the Church of the poor.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Helping or Enabling?

Nearly thirty years ago I was appointed pastor of St Leo Church in North Fairmount, in a part of Cincinnati which had changed from a white middle-class community in the 1950s to a predominately low-income, black neighborhood in the 1960s.

When I told an acquaintance about my new assignment he responded with, “What did you do to get sent there?” He knew the poverty there was obvious, with housing in disrepair and litter on the streets.

A few years before I arrived a dynamic woman named Lois Broerman, intent on addressing these issues, had already initiated a “preferential option for the poor.” She established the North Fairmount Community Center in the parish’s former school building, providing a senior citizen program, child care, Headstart, and GED (high school equivalency) classes. On other sites she and the Center’s board opened a thrift shop/food co-op and a laundromat.

In addition the organizers applied for government and foundation grants, with which they bought existing housing,  repaired it, and then sold it at minimum cost to low-income residents who had been renting.

One of the guiding principles for bringing new life and hope to the area was to seek the active involvement of the local population. Sometimes well-meaning people come into a poor neighborhood to help but they fail to engage in the process the people with the need.

It was a bit of wisdom I learned early on: “When you try to do it for them, you may end up doing it to them.”

My seven years in that parish brought me a number of insights: 1) not all the poor are poor through their own fault; 2) poverty can undermine a person’s self-image; 3) the welfare system is sometimes part of the problem; 4) housing, even public housing, is not always well-maintained; and 5) in some cases the poor pay more for groceries in their neighborhood than their middle-class counterparts in the suburbs.

One of the major conflicts for me at that time was making a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. It was easy to help those truly in need, but I questioned over and over whether to give assistance or food to those whom I judged unworthy of it.

I knew from experience that some who came for a bag of groceries would take the food to the local bar and sell it to one of the patrons to get money for drinks. Was I helping or enabling?

What brought all these memories back to mind is my reading of the life, ministry and philosophy of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement and their houses of hospitality.

Maurin and Day did not simply help the poor; they chose to live lives of voluntary poverty themselves.

They lived in the poor neighborhood, ate the same food they gave to the hungry, wore the used-clothing they provided for those who had a need, and took in strangers who had no housing, no care-givers, no future.

Both Day and Maurin determined to live the Gospel, to see Jesus in everyone, to follow the Works of Mercy as outlined in the New Testament, especially in Matthew 25 (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and so on).

Day was often criticized for giving assistance to those who were “poor through their own fault” –the alcoholics, the drug-abusers, the lazy.

Her openness to assisting even the “undeserving” was based on Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, where he wrote, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (cf 5:3).

Poverty, she realized, was not just about money; poverty of spirit is about brokenness. The alcoholic, the depressed person, the prostitute, the unwed pregnant girl, and even the lazy, are among the poor in spirit.

Maurin and Day were social activists, sometimes describing themselves as “anarchists” because they wanted not only to help the poor but to change the system which made them or kept them poor.

Maurin used to put his insights in simple, poetic-like statements, sometimes described as “Easy Essays.” He was critical of both the welfare state and the expectation that the federal government is responsible for solving the problem of poverty.

One of his Easy Essays begins with:

People go to Washington
asking the government
to solve their economic problems,
while the Federal government
was never intended
to solve men’s economic problems.
Thomas Jefferson says that
the less government there is
the better it is.
If the less government there is
the better it is,
then the best kind of government
is self-government.

Not only should people help people on a personal and individual level, but the poor must be shown ways of caring for themselves, of changing their dependence on others.

Day constantly urged the readers of The Catholic Worker newspaper, the visitors to the houses of hospitality, and the audiences before whom she spoke to remember the Works of Mercy and to see Jesus in all people, even in the refuse of society.

My experience at St Leo’s in North Fairmount led me to interpret Matthew’s “poor in spirit” as encompassing both those who are broke and those who are broken. I wrote about that distinction in St Anthony Messenger back in 1988.

And yet I have not personally resolved in my own mind how or whether to apply the distinction between “helping” and “enabling.” Perhaps my continued reading of Dorothy Day’s writings will bring some resolution.

It’s the “helping vs. enabling” that continues to trouble me.