ROSARIO, Argentina – Ever since his election to the papacy almost six years ago, Pope Francis has called for a “poor church for the poor,” one that gets out of the sacristy to find people where they are, an Iglesia en salida.
For many, understanding what he means by this has been a challenge. There are those who think he wants a Marxist, populist or Peronist church, in reference to Argentina’s Justicialista Party, founded by General Juan Domingo Peron and immortalized in an artistic, if unrealistic, way by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita.
Others believe he wants to reform the Church so it focuses solely on the excluded because they live in situations the Church teaches are irregular- divorced and civilly remarried couples, those cohabitating, the LGBT community, and so on.
But at the end of the day, those who know the pope best – those who knew him when he was just Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio – understand that the idea of a “poor church for the poor” is a literal one, not a metaphor.
Argentine theologian Juan Carlos Scannone says a key part of what shapes Francis’s thought is a strongly Argentinian stream of Catholic thinking called “theology of the people.” It holds, Scannone said, that reflection on virtually any topic shouldn’t start with ideological categories, but with the concrete experiences of ordinary people.
Friends say Bergoglio’s identity was forged by Buenos Aires’ popular religiosity, some of which goes back to the colonial era that brought devotions such as Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina. A second is that of immigrants who would wait in line for hours to venerate the image of San Cayetano, patron of bread and work.
These expressions of popular piety have kept millions flocking to shrines as an expression of the people’s faith. Francis learned to value such expressions of devotion early on, seeing them not merely as quaint or kitschy, but rather a touchstone for both theology and pastoral activity.
For a man for whom people are more important than ideas, who does Francis have in his head when he talks about a “poor church for the poor?”
He used to walk the slums and poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, and it was often said he was more comfortable in these areas than in Puerto Madero, a posh neighborhood he once described as “scandalizing … beautiful, with enormous buildings and 36 restaurants that rip you off – and, right next door, [it has] a slum.”
Alas, in a country where 33.6 percent of the population lives under the poverty line and where an estimated 70 percent of the population is Catholic, finding an intersection between the two to understand who he has in mind is not hard.
One such person is Justa Aquino, who’s been living in Rosario, Argentina’s second largest city, for decades, after she migrated from the northern province of Misiones fleeing hunger. She’s worked as a cleaning lady for the same family for the past 30 years and sees her faith as the motor that keeps her going.
(Aquino is employed by my family in Rosario.)
“Even when life is tough, when I want to cry because things are not easy, I hold on to Jesus,” she told Crux earlier this month. “Jesus himself cried when he was rejected. And we too can cry. But Jesus is ever merciful, and his mother, Mary, is our mother too, and she walks with us.”
Though she doesn’t remember when she had her First Communion, “I was young,” she knows her faith goes back to that day.
“I felt that God was asking me to respect the ten Commandments,” she said. “That it was going to be good to fear sin and that life has to be one of prayer, Mass, and sacrifices, even when I don’t like them or when life itself seems to be a sacrifice. It’s also important to go on spiritual retreats, talk to the priest, and build a community.”
Aquino never finished primary school, and this can become evident when she speaks. She often changes the form of words following common logic, not the rules of grammar – and much less ideology, as many are doing today to make Spanish more “inclusive.”
Twice a year, she goes to Corrientes, a state in Argentina that’s even poorer than Misiones, for a missionary trip organized by her parish. For the past 27 years she’s hosted a prayer group in her home “for the conversion of my family,” and her humble home has often been a “transit” house for babies and children looking for a permanent family.
She’s a member of the Legion of Mary, something she acknowledges has been a challenge because “through Jesus, Mary helps you understand the family better. And sometimes, not understanding, not knowing, can be easier. But we were given a lot, so a lot will be asked from us.”
Never having heard of American Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, she seems a perfect embodiment of his “seamless garment” ethos: “You can’t help the baby and not the mother, and you can’t forget the baby nor the mother after that life is born,” is how she puts it.
“But you can’t forget the poor either. Those who are in prison and the elderly, many of whom have been forgotten by their own families,” she said. “They too, are alive. Visit the infirm, help them examine their conscience so they can let go of their sins and the hatred they harbor before it’s too late.”
Aquino’s missionary activity is not confined to the two-yearly trips, but it’s part of her daily routine, when she goes knocking on doors to talk to her neighbors about Jesus.
“Sometimes, people are like Martha and Maria, too busy with their daily lives to listen to what actually matters,” she says, with a visible sense of frustration. “But all you can do is plant the seed. You can’t force anyone to listen to you, and you cannot force anyone to join the Church, that’s proselytism. What we can do is talk, hope they’re open to saying a prayer with you while you’re visiting them.”
Though she’s not one to read the paper, she’s aware of scandals that have rocked the Church, ranging from clerical sexual abuse to a priest running off with a member of the community. This, she said, “can be a crime in some cases, mere sin in others,” but it cannot “be a reason for me to leave the Church. My faith is not in men, it’s in Jesus, in His Father and the Holy Spirit. In the sacraments, in the beautiful mystery of the Mass.”
When asked about Francis’s “poor church for the poor,” Aquino doesn’t struggle to explain what it means, and she knows the pope is talking about her, even if she’s too humble to say so out loud. With no theological degree, she can also interpret some of the Argentine pontiff’s recurrent ideas, including his definition of rumors as “terrorism.”
“How many times, when someone makes a mistake, for example, when reading at Mass, we hear all these people whispering, commenting, see them laughing?” she said. “For all we know, that’s Mary putting us to the test, and we failed. She wants to know how our faith is, if we really love our neighbor, and like the apostles who betrayed Jesus, we fail.”
“The only way to change our lives, to love, to be tolerant, is through God,” Aquino explains. “He guides us in our path, never lies to us. He told us, ask and you shall receive. I asked him for a dignified job and he gave me the gift of working for a family that made me stronger in my faith.”
“What more could I ask for?” she said, offering what seems a fitting summary of the spirit of a “theology of the people.”