Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Bishops' Catacomb Pact on Poverty

Just a month before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said in a radio address that the Church wants to be “the Church of all, especially the Church of the poor.”

Just days into his papacy Pope Francis told a gathering of reporters, “How I would like a Church that is poor, and for the poor.”

It is well-known that Jorge Bergoglio, while serving as auxiliary bishop and then as Archbishop of Buenos Aries had earned the nickname “slum bishop” because of his ministry among the poor and broken members of his archdiocese.

His own lifestyle gives witness to Gospel values: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me” (Mk 120:21). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” (Mt 6:19).

Several times in his apostolic exhortation Gospel Joy Pope Francis focused attention on the world’s poor, urging justice, economic change, alms and spiritual care. He also encouraged our learning from the poor (“They have much to teach us,” #198) and to be cautious of a lifestyle that excludes others (“The culture of prosperity deadens us...” #54).

One of the criticisms leveled against the Second Vatican Council is the little mention of the Church’s ministry to the poor. Only eight of the Council’s 16 documents refer to the “poor,” and the total references are but 24.

Bishops from poor diocese were particularly concerned about the Council’s failure to address the issues of poverty.

Just days before the Council’s final session, about 40 bishops (mostly from Latin America) gathered for Mass in the catacombs of St Domitilla (a series of underground caves in Rome where thousands of early Christians are buried).

Although many of these bishops had been meeting on their own and apart from the Council to discuss the problems of poverty and how the Church should respond to them, on this occasion  (November 16, 1965) the group decided to enter into a pact, agreeing to change their personal lifestyles to better reflect Gospel poverty.

Although the original signed text  is missing Bishop Bonaventura Kloppenberg (a German-born Brazilian bishop who died in 2009) did leave among his papers a complete text of the pact, which he titled “Pact of the Servant and Poor Church.”

It is believed that Archbishop Oscar Romero, of San Salvador, who was martyred in 1980 and beatified by the Church in 2015, was the driving force behind the formation of the so-called “Pact of the Catacombs.”

The opening statement of the pact says, “We bishops assembled in the Second Vatican Council, are conscious of the deficiencies of our lifestyle in terms of evangelical poverty. Motivated by one another in an initiative in which each of us has tried to avoid ambition and presumption, we unite with all our brothers in the episcopacy and rely above all on the grace and strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ and on the prayer of the faithful and the priests in our respective dioceses. Placing ourselves in thought and in prayer before the Trinity, the Church of Christ, and all the priests and faithful of our dioceses, with humility and awareness of our weakness, but also with all the determination and all the strength that God desires to grant us by his grace, we commit ourselves to the following.”

Then comes a series of lifestyle changes and initiatives the signing bishops agree to undertake; among them are:

--we will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.

--we renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing (rich vestments and loud colors) and symbols made of precious metals

--as far as possible we will entrust the financial and material running of our dioceses to a commission of competent lay persons

--we do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship); we prefer to be called by the evangelical name of “Father”

--we will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures, and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons

--when we return to our dioceses we will make these resolutions known to our diocesan priests and  ask them to assist us with their comprehension, their collaboration, and their prayers.

This catacomb pact was developed and signed 50 years ago. The majority of the histories of Vatican II never mention the pact. Most Catholics never heard of it. It is hard to determine whether the agreement had influence on the churches of the signers.

But it appears that Pope Francis knows of the pact, or at least shares in its convictions and provisions. Look at the propositions and then look at Pope Francis’ ministry, and the two fit like hand in glove.

Full text of the Catacomb Pact is available online, e.g., http://www.sedosmission.org/web/attachments/article/137/Catacomb

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