A Church of the Poor: Pope Francis and the transformation of orthodoxy
Orbis Books £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.60
TO READ Clemens Sedmak’s important commentary on the thinking of the present Pope is to realise that the changed atmosphere that Pope Francis has brought about is no matter of mere style.
Here is a stimulating and inspiring, if demanding, read, a sign of radical hope in our bleak political context. There are some of the well-known Francis stories here: his unhesitating embrace of Vincio Riva, his disfigurement notwithstanding, and the exhortation of his neighbour at the conclave not to forget the poor, among others.
But this is not a book of anecdotes or a simple hagiography. It is a thesis that what we have in this Pope is a transformative thinker, determined to orientate orthodox Christian faith — precisely orthodox Christian faith — around the option for the poor. In this Pope’s mind, the poor are not objects of our charity, but our teachers and inspirers; around the primacy of the poor we see the potential of orthodox Christianity to be an agent of profound change.
The route that Sedmak takes in pursuit of this aim is, it must be said, not an easy one to follow, and the reader must be prepared for some hard work. In particular, he refers frequently to the way in which Pope Francis’s commitment to a Church of the poor represents a change of “epistemic practice”, an expression that many will find puzzling, and that Sedmak’s rather abstract explanation does not really illuminate.
As the argument unfolds, however, the mists clear around this rather opaque language, and it becomes possible to see how, in the author’s interpretation, the Pope is offering nothing less than a radical change in how we know God and understand what it is to love God, when the poor become the source and criterion of our knowledge and understanding.
After the introduction, Sedmak takes us first through the themes of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, seen as an encouragement to those whom the Pope is addressing to “live in a particular manner, to embrace particular forms of practice, to change patterns of being and doing”. The joy of the gospel is about “a proper relationship with God [which] will make us engage in an exodus from safe places, including epistemically safe places” — a Church of the poor will make us know and understand differently.
The next chapter, with its biblical reflections on the character of Jesus, shows how orthodoxy is discipleship — the way of the Church of the poor which Jesus built. The chapter on the “Wound of Knowledge” shows how the Church of the poor gains a new understanding of the way of the cross; for “the poverty of Christ is the root of the gospel of joy, as much as poverty of spirit is the root of the joy of the gospel,” and so the Church of the poor will know a new and joyful way to understand what orthodoxy is.
And that orthodoxy is in a “new key”, transforming, as Sedmak’s final chapter affirms, the accepted orthodoxies of propositions and institutions. The church of the poor will be sustained in the orthodoxy of pilgrimage, one informed at every point by the love of God, the subject of the book’s epilogue.
This is a demanding account of a remarkable Pope. At the end of it, we know a little more the radical possibilities of this Pope’s way of speaking and being. And we also know why he faces, in so many respects, an uphill struggle against the forces that resist transformation and the new way of knowing which prioritising the poor makes possible.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.