Ned Barnett

Pope may inspire a wider response to poverty

April 2, 2013 

The poor will always be with us, but they are not always before us.

At times, the better off in the nation and the world, absorbed with wars, or dizzying technological change or economic depression, do not focus on those who are without.

We’ve been in one of those looking-past periods for several decades. It was nearly a half-century ago that President Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” and Robert F. Kennedy made the poor a centerpiece of his brief 1968 presidential campaign. But those efforts fell victim to the cost of the real war in Vietnam and an assassin’s bullet in Los Angeles.

President Nixon battled scandal, President Carter was overwhelmed by inflation. Then came the Reagan Revolution and the focus turned to self-reliance and cutting entitlement programs. President Clinton joined in with welfare reform. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation became preoccupied with security and war.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards revived the issue of the poor when he ran for president in 2004 promising to address the “two Americas,” but the issue found little resonance. Then came President Obama and a fixation on health care, a deep recession and calls to cut federal spending. Obama has said little about the poor, and his Republican opponents say less. And as it’s overlooked, poverty is getting worse, as Gene Nichol is reporting is his year-long, N&O op-ed series on poverty in North Carolina. (See today’s op-ed page for the latest.)

But in Rome this month, something may have happened. As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina realized that the votes of the cardinals were about to make him pope, his fellow cardinal and friend, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, embraced him and reminded him as he stepped into the papacy, “Don’t forget the poor!”

Hummes is a Franciscan and his words inspired the new pope to take the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, a saint born in the 12th century who was once among the beggars at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Francis is giving more than a nod to the saint’s spirit. He is being revealed as a man of simplicity and humility who has avoided the trappings of his new office. On Holy Thursday, he chose not the traditional washing of the feet of fellow priests, but to wash and kiss the feet of inmates – including those of women and non-Catholics – at a juvenile detention center.

The Rev. Mark Reamer, a Franciscan and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in North Raleigh, said that the new pope’s early statements and actions reflect St. Francis’ kinship with the poor.

“It sounds like the elimination of poverty is going to be one of the hallmarks of his leadership,” he said. “It also seems that he is modeling that. His own lifestyle backs it up.”

The pope heads a church of 1.2 billion people, but there are signs that his message of simplicity, humility and solidarity with the poor may move an even wider audience. This pope arrives as the nation and much of the world are exhausted by war, fear of terrorism and a raw economic exploitation that has narrowed the middle class and widened the gulf between the poor and the super rich. A recent analysis by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston found that between 1966 and 2011, the average income for the bottom 90 percent of Americans rose by $59. During the same period, the average income for the top 10 percent climbed by $116,071.

It is a time ripe for Francis’ message, a message that extends beyond his church.

The Rev. William Willimon, a former dean of Duke Chapel, said the pope’s taking the name of Francis or his simple acts of paying his own hotel bill or leaving the popemobile to greet crowds may be dismissed as “just gestures,” but, he added, “In the church, it’s all about gesture.”

Willimon, who has returned to teach at Duke Divinity School after serving as the United Methodist Bishop of North Alabama, said his students are turning from “psychological” religion, in which they tend to their own souls, toward following the teachings of Jesus more directly by serving the poor and marginalized.

“It may be that this pope has come at a time such as this,” he said. “There is a sense that we have an aspect of the Gospel that we need to underline and emphasize in a new way.”

The Rev. Ray Buchanan, founder and international president of Stop Hunger Now, a Raleigh-based hunger relief agency that has provided millions of meals around the world, said Francis may change the agenda for Christians and help spur a wider movement to ease and end poverty.

“I am very impressed that he really does have a special focus on the poor,” said Buchanan, a United Methodist minister. “That is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen come out of the Catholic church, or any church, in recent years. The only way we are going to end hunger is if we create a movement that says we are not going to tolerate hunger.”

Buchanan recalled a theologian who observed that, “The gap between us and the poor is actually the gap between us and God. And what the pope is doing by his actions is narrowing that gap.”

Perhaps this Easter will celebrate also the rebirth of an idea. That the time for looking past the poor, or, worse yet, blaming them for their situation, is over. The time to help, broadly and without judgment, may be coming alive again.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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