A Prayerful Church for the Poor: Pope Francis on Encountering Christ in Prayer and Solidarity

Like many, I’ve been excited about Pope Francis from the moment he stepped out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Besides his off-the-cuff homilies, audiences, and Tweets, I’ve been delighted with the gestures which indicate his commitment to poverty and encountering others: paying his own hotel bill, celebrating the Holy Thursday liturgy with teenagers in a prison, stopping to embrace a disabled child after his Easter Sunday Mass. The sheer number of these events with which I filled my Facebook friends’ news feeds prompted an apology for my “all-Pope-all-the-time” posts, but I can’t deny my excitement. There’s a palpable sense that Francis means what he says when he exclaimed, “Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”

The crowd in St. Peter's blesses Pope Francis
The crowd in St. Peter’s blesses Pope Francis

People have paid far less attention to Francis’s prayer life, maybe because they simply expect such behavior from a pope. His invitation to the crowd to pray for Pope-Emeritus Benedict and to bless him on the night of his election has been viewed as a gesture of collegiality, a sign of his humility, but not as a real sign for the Church to pray for him. Far fewer news outlets paid attention to Francis’s thirty minutes in prayer at St. Mary Major on the day after his election than to his phone call to stop his newspaper deliveries in Buenos Aires. Much ink has been spilled on Francis’s relationship with liturgical rubrics, but little has been written about his constant appeals for prayer for himself and others during his speeches and his Tweets. His former press secretary recounts that then-Cardinal Bergoglio used to wake up at 5 AM to spend time in prayer before beginning his day at 7 AM. There is no doubt that Pope Francis is a man deeply committed to prayer.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Image Books, 2013). References to this book are in the text.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Image Books, 2013). References to this book are in the text.

For Francis, a necessary connection exists between his commitment to a poor Church and his commitment to a prayerful Church. One of the most interesting translations occasioned by Francis’s election has been his 2010 book of conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. Among the many different topics which Rabbi Skorka and then-Cardinal Bergoglio discuss, the intrinsic relationship of poverty, prayer, and encounter gets pointed out again and again. At the heart of the future Pope Francis’s thought is an encounter which pulls believers out of themselves toward commitment to God and others, found quintessentially in prayer, but expressed necessarily through commitment to the poor.

Prayer is nothing other than the encounter of human beings with the living God. The “talking and listening” of prayer opens people to personally encountering God, who continues to draw them deeper and deeper into relationship with God’s mysterious self (13, 178). This encounter is not within the believer’s control alone (22): she must be drawn out of her self to an ever-increasing closeness and commitment to God. For Christians, this always occurs through encounter with Jesus Christ.

For then-Cardinal Bergoglio, prayer involves being shared outward with others. It is precisely when prayer becomes a lifeless ritualism or a self-justifying technique for controlling one’s life that prayer dies (51). Enacted through the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer is meant to keep us from being closed in on ourselves and becoming self-referential individuals or communities: it opens us out to God and to God’s plans. Prayer is meant to be the concrete practice which answers Pope Francis’s call in a recent Tweet: “At this time of crisis it is important not to become closed in on oneself, but rather to be open and attentive towards others.” It is not enough for prayer to comfort us or to give us what we want: it must also draw us forth from our own preconceptions and self-satisfaction to encounter with God and other people.

The commitment to encountering God leads necessarily to commitment to one’s neighbor. The future Pope Francis understands the two great commandments—calling us to love God and to love our neighbor—as tied together by the great judgment scene in Matthew 25 in which Jesus judges based on what we do to the least of these: “We cannot adore God if our spirit does not include the needy” (142), because “[f]or Christians, one’s neighbor is the person of Christ” (71). Commitment to God must lead to commitment to others. As he writes, “The religious relationship involves a commitment, not an escape. […] When the religious person stops serving, he begins to transform into a mere manager, into an NGO agent. The religious leader shares with, suffers with, and serves his brothers” (182, 183: emphasis mine). It is precisely this solidarity and commitment to encountering others personally which sets Christians apart in their service to the poor, and it is this solidarity which is learned in and prompted by the school of prayer.

The Church that is poor and for the poor is thus a prayerful Church whose encounter with the living Christ is expressed in a new and necessary way: in personal encounter and commitment to the poor. Though justice involves structural change, the future Pope points out how Christianity encourages us above all to encounter the poor person in front of us:

    In Christianity, the attitude we must have toward the poor is, in its essence, that of true commitment. And [Jesus] added something else [in Matthew 25’s judgment scene]: this commitment must be person to person, in the flesh. It is not enough to mediate this commitment through institutions, which obviously help because they have a multiplying effect, but that is not enough. They do not excuse us from our obligation of establishing personal contact with the needy. (138: emphasis mine)

This commitment to personal and concrete encounter with the poor is so important to then-Cardinal Bergoglio that he twice describes how he often asks penitents in the confessional if they give alms while looking the recipient in the eye (55, 133). Interaction with the poor cannot be among one’s “social-conscience calming activities” (140). It must be charity, “a profound human generosity” which is a commitment to God and to one’s neighbor rather than solely to one’s self (56).

Even more, this commitment to the poor becomes prayer in its own way. Commitment to the poor must seek justice: as the future Pope writes, “There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that the one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers. […] Therefore, the integral religious man is called to be a just man, to bring justice to others” (28). This in turn can be a prayer, because it expresses the fundamental coherence between encountering God and encountering the poorest among us:

    An act of justice that becomes concrete in helping one’s neighbor is a prayer. If not, one falls into the sin of hypocrisy, which is like schizophrenia for the soul. One can suffer these dysfunctional features if he does not take into account that the Lord is in my brother and my brother is hungry. If a person does not take care of his brother, he cannot talk with the Father about his brother, with God. (56: emphasis mine)

In other words, Christians must escape from the fatal self-imprisoning gravity of rigid moralism and strict ritualism; they must have a twofold encounter with God (in prayer) and with others, namely the poor (in charity and service), or they are hypocritical, split Christians. There is no way to divide the private life of Christians and the Church from their public activities: the sanctuary and private prayer spaces of the Church must grow to include the shared space of a life lived with the poor through personal and social commitment to their needs.

In Pope Francis’s thought and example, there can be no separating “a Church that is poor and for the poor” from a Church formed in prayer: the two are intrinsically connected. What he preaches is—in a sense—nothing extraordinary, for it is a basic truth of our faith, expressed in various ways from the images of Matthew 25 to the way Catholic Social Teaching’s preferential love for the poor cuts across political lines to the concrete love of Mother Teresa. Yet the way in which Pope Francis witnesses to this—just like the way St. Francis of Assisi once witnessed to the importance of poverty—may prove game-changing to Catholics.

Pope Francis washing feet on Holy Thursday
Pope Francis washing feet on Holy Thursday

Francis’s call and witness to me challenges both my theological and political comfort-zones. I know that I can’t be satisfied with praying daily, going to Mass, tithing to the Church, and giving my time as an academic theologian if this is not followed by spending time with my begging brother, my homeless sister, and the hungry children of South Bend. I also cannot imagine that my liberal political commitments will substitute for personally sharing meals with those at the South Bend homeless shelter. He challenges me to go beyond my normal pre-supposed commitments to a truly Spirit-filled witness to the living Christ.

Francis calls to me, showing that—even for a training academic—a concrete commitment to Christ in the poor around us may well prove the most convincing witness to a prayerful relationship with God, just as prayer supports this commitment to encounter. Given the way much of the world views Pope Francis, this witness is already incredibly effective in him. May Pope Francis continue inspiring us and the world—challenging us to reach to those on the margins—by his commitment to prayer and to the solidarity of the Church with the poor!