Pope honours the poor in battered Philippines

The people’s pope: Francis meets with excited Filipino children © PA

Pope Francis addressed a crowd of millions in Manila. He talked about the nobility of suffering, but does this represent a patronising view of the true horror of poverty?

Typhoon Haiyan wreaked devastation on the Philippines when it struck in 2013, killing over six thousand people, leaving millions homeless and reducing several cities to rubble. The terrible wounds are bleeding still.

So when Pope Francis concluded his tour of Asia this week by celebrating mass outdoors in the Philippine capital Manila, it meant a lot to the country’s 80 million Catholics. An incredible six million people flocked to hear him speak.

Crowds stretching for as far as the eye could see made for a powerful image. But many commentators say a more intimate moment caught the spirit of the trip. Earlier that day, the pope encountered a 12-year-old girl who had grown up on the streets. Why, she tearfully asked, did God allow children to suffer in this way?

A visibly moved Francis hugged her and responded: “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry... but those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”

The idea that suffering and humility bring the poor closer to God is a key tenet of Christianity. Yet like Muslims and Jews, Christians have often held conflicting views about poverty. Intellectuals in the medieval Church saw peasants simultaneously as blessed and as contemptible brutes.

Many thinkers saw the poor as a “social problem” in the 19th century – although Karl Marx argued that the working classes lived in misery because they were being manipulated by the ruling classes who fed off their labour. He believed a time would come when the workers would overthrow their masters and create a new communist world order.

Marx’s vision has not come to pass, despite the efforts of communist regimes across the globe. Many economists say that capitalism has done much to help the world’s poor, with a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010. Yet others worry that rising inequality will soon cause this progress to stall.

Poor excuses

The pope was by no means saying that the existence of poverty is acceptable in our age. But he was implying that there is nobility and dignity in suffering, and many will applaud him for that. Privilege and comfort make us disconnected from the essentials of life leaving us callous and numb. We take life for granted — the poor do not have this luxury.

But some find this attitude problematic and even patronising. There is nothing ennobling about deprivation, they say – looking for positives only makes us complacent in the fight against it. Poverty is gruelling, dehumanising and wretched. If we want to change that reality, we must first honestly confront it.

You Decide

  1. Is there anything noble about poverty?
  2. Reread the pope’s response to the twelve-year-old girl. What do you think he meant?

Activities

  1. In groups, write down five lessons that living in poverty might teach a person. While very few people would want a life of poverty, do these lessons suggest that we should aim to lead simpler lives?
  2. Write a story about a super-rich person who, after a sudden change in fortune, must live in poverty, and explain how it changes the way he or she sees the world.

Some People Say...

“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

What do you think?

Q & A

Why can’t we rid the world of poverty?
Economists are hopeful that we might soon see an end to extreme poverty, the kind of poverty which leaves people fighting to survive. Every day 12,000 fewer children under the age of five die than in 1990. The amount of aid given to poorer countries has almost doubled since 2000, so the world appears to be moving in the right direction.
Why have Christians had mixed feelings towards the poor?
Charity and helping those in need is central to Christianity, but not all Christians have always had positive views. Some theologians saw peasants as being related to the Biblical ploughman Cain, who murdered his shepherd brother Abel. Yet other Christian groups like the Lollards thought this was wrong, and believed the church should do more to serve the poor.

Word Watch

Bleeding
The Philippines is usually hit by around 20 typhoons a year. Although it was not on the scale of typhoon Haiyan, typhoon Hagupit caused severe damage at the end of 2014.
Muslims
Different strands of Islam have different attitudes towards poverty. Sufism encourages the renunciation of material wealth, but most Sunni and Shia scholars traditionally hold that self-denial is not encouraged by the Koran.
Brutes
The medieval world believed that society should be divided into ‘three estates’, with the clergy, the nobility and the peasantry all seen as distinct categories.
Karl Marx
Marx thought the working classes, called the ‘proletariat’, were locked in a historical struggle with land and factory owners, whom he termed the ‘bourgeoisie’.
Communist
Russia, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Venezuela and much of Eastern Europe have all experimented with communist economies, but none have proved particularly successful.
Extreme poverty
One definition of this is living on less than $1.25 a day. Those in extreme poverty are often in a fight just to stay alive.

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