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.
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.