The Church of the poor is not visible
Pope Paul VI's vision is confronted with violations and abuse of human dignity
In 1970 the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) formulated a new model for the Church, one that moved from the Eurocentric paradigm of the past to one that embraced the powerless and poor.
Pope Paul VI articulated this new vision at the first Asian Bishops Meeting, declaring: “It is our resolve, first of all, to be more truly the Church of the poor. If we are to place ourselves at the side of the multitudes in our continent, we must in our way of life share something of their poverty. The Church cannot set up islands of affluence in a sea of want and misery.”
What has been called the Christendom or Constantinian model of the Church is rooted in the Holy Roman Empire and reflects a hierarchical pyramid, which informed the work of European missionaries in Asia.
Pope Paul VI’s new model, however, is more in harmony with the Kingdom of God that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed, a classless community in which everyone considers it their privilege to serve and contribute.
The poor are an untapped resource enabling the transformation of the pyramid model of past centuries, which situates those in need at the bottom, and the move towards a Church of the poor soon became a mandate for the Office of Human Development (OHD) in the FABC.
Bishop Labayen, the first chairman of the OHD, stated my job description as executive secretary of the Asian Bishops’ Conference in 1982 this way: “We want someone who can explain to the busy bishops in simple language without any jargon what is happening among the poor at a grassroots level in different countries of Asia, and how they should respond to what is happening in their dioceses.”
The mandate for the Church of the poor was implemented through the Bishops’ Institutes for Social Action. Historically, all the bishops who attend these institutes were tasked not only to understand the struggles and suffering of the poor but to show solidarity for their joys and sorrows.
A 1986 meeting of the BISA posited that while exposure resembled a doctor’s visit, immersion led to genuine empathy through lived experience. A follow-up meeting further delineated the obligations of bishops in this regard, under what was called the Pastoral Spiral method.
The method called for immersion among the poor, understanding social structures that perpetuated poverty, theological reflection on the ways in which God works in how humans respond within the context of poverty, pastoral planning with, not for, the people, and a heightened awareness of how God was already at work within such communities through contemplative prayer.
The message was not new. Mahatma Gandhi saw the wisdom of this approach when he said that “there is more than enough resources for our needs, but not for our greed.” Within the Church, the importance of the poor has been articulated by numerous pontiffs in the last several decades.
What has also been noted by some is that programs devoted to the poor can become obstacles to human relationships with the poor that is fundamental to our Catholic identity. Otherwise, we merely provide services like any other organization or government.
The ideal is an incarnational process that gradually enables us to see reality through the eyes of the poor because God sees reality that way and faith means to see reality through God’s eyes.
The spirituality of the Church of the poor bewails the absence of God in the violations of human dignity, the affront to life and the abuse and destruction of the environment. It affirms the presence of God and strives to bear testimony to His saving presence among the people through solidarity with their struggles.
In 1999 Blessed John Paul II staked out the scope of responsibility for the Church in Asia.
“Asian Catholics have to adopt a lifestyle consonant with the teachings of the Gospel, so that they may better serve the Church’s mission and so that the Church herself may become a Church of the poor and for the poor.”
Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.