So ask a number of recent news reports from a variety of sources, such as the BBC, the Christian Post, Newsweek, and MSNBC, among others. Without a doubt, Pope Francis has been making headlines left and right over the past few months.
In May, he met with Raúl Castro of communist Cuba, and, a little more than a week later, he beatified Oscar Romero, the outspoken archbishop of El Salvador who still remains a controversial political figure so many years after he was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet in 1980. In June, Pope Francis published “Laudato Si,” an encyclical on ecology that has been met with a great deal of resistance from business sectors in industrialized countries. This month, during Pope Francis’ recent whirlwind visit to Latin America, he repeatedly denounced the excesses of free market capitalism as a new form of colonialism that continues to exploit and dehumanize the poor, who form the majority of the populations of the countries of his Latin American tour. The internet chats and political analyses centered on Pope Francis reveal no small amount of consternation from those in the developed world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who wish this pope would stick to religious topics only.
So what’s up with Pope Francis?
As someone who served in Latin America for a number of years as a missionary, I have my own two cents’ worth of insight to share. From 1995-2001, I lived in Chirilagua, a small town in a very rural part of El Salvador, the smallest yet most densely-populated country of Central America, and home to repeated armed confrontations, civil unrest, and political instability throughout the twentieth century, culminating in a brutally violent civil war in which more than seventy thousand, most of them civilians, lost their lives between 1977 and 1992. The parish where I was assigned, in the diocese of San Miguel in the eastern section of the country, was served by Oscar Romero when he was a young circuit rider priest, taking weeks to make his way through the towns and villages dotting the mountains, valleys, and coastline on an annual visit to dispense the sacraments. On these pastoral visits to the more remote areas of his parish (what later would form our mission parish), he would stay with the people in their homes. In this way, he became quite familiar with their reality and their struggle to survive. Our parish seniors told stories of how they received their first communion from him as children, or were married by him, or had their children baptized by him. Clearly, our people remembered Romero very warmly.
But, as much as they valued the sacraments, it wasn’t for his sacramental ministry alone that that they remembered Romero so fondly. It was because he made it a priority of his priestly ministry to come to know their world, their poverty, their struggle for survival. When, some years later, he became archbishop of San Salvador, he did not allow his administrative responsibilities to isolate him from his people. He continued to be a pastoral presence among them, sharing meals with them, drinking coffee with them, listening to them, allowing them to touch him, to move him to become their outspoken defender against the forces that wanted to exploit their labor and confine them to a form of economic slavery.
For Archbishop Romero, faith, politics, and economics were all integrated; one could not be separated from the other. He was fearless in his insistence that the demands of the Gospel must inform and transform politics and economics so that all born into a society would have the means to live a genuinely human life, a life in which none ever had to go hungry, and all had access to dignified housing and fair wage labor.
Although I lived in El Salvador a number of years after Romero’s death, miserable poverty marked our parish. On a visit to El Salvador last summer, I saw much development, the result of more than two million Salvadorans living in the U.S., Canada, and Australia who send home monthly remittances. Nonetheless, even today, many continue to live on the edge of survival, crowded in single room houses made of dirt floors, windowless walls of mud and stick, and roofs of rusty corrugated tin.
Already vulnerable to the elements in good weather, in bad weather they are even more at risk. Hurricanes, heavy rains, flash floods, and mudslides are frequent visitors to Central America, a land made more vulnerable to the forces of nature because of extensive deforestation, thanks to international companies pillaging the land of its mineral wealth, agricultural resources, and its valued timber. All this has devastating consequences for local and regional ecologies. While international companies grow wealthy from the fat of Latin American land, those who remain on the land must live (and die) with the consequences of the ecological devastation left by foreign business interests.
Much, much more can be said here, but, suffice it to say that the El Salvador that I know is not unique to Latin America. The miserable and dehumanizing poverty endured by the people of our parish is shared across the continent. Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty first century, the economic ties between the industrialized world (the U.S., Canada, Europe, and more recently, China) and Latin American countries have depleted the natural resources of the latter while fueling the profits and economic growth of the former. This has led not only to an economic enslavement of the masses of the poor in Latin America, where they earn, on average, three to five dollars a day (while gas prices and transportation costs are as high or higher than in the U.S.), but it has had devastating ecological effects on entire regions, as the mountains of Central America and the rain forests of South America become deforested to make way for mines, cash crop plantations, and extended cattle ranches . . . not to mention the illegal drug farms.
To put it another way, we who populate the lands of the northern hemisphere, instead of living in communion with our neighbors to the south, live by consuming them—their labor, their natural resources—with devastating effects.
Of course, we are unwitting about our consumption, how we live off the sweat of the poor, how our business interests exploit their labor and the natural resources of their land. A Latin American like Oscar Romero, Pope Francis knows the struggle of his people to survive in a global economy that is structured to exploit them. A Jesuit, Pope Francis knows from his Jesuit brothers around the world that the struggle to survive is shared, not only in Latin America, but around the globe.
So, is the pope communist? Not really. But, like Oscar Romero, he knows that the Good News of Jesus can only be Good News if we who claim to follow Jesus actually live it. And living Jesus’ Good News will inform how we live together on the planet. It will inform our business interests. It will inform our way of doing economics. It will inform how we care for the planet. It will inform how we form business relationships with each other. Pope Francis’ challenge to us is clear:
Will we live in communion with our neighbors and with the planet? Or will we live by consuming our neighbors and the planet?
Is Pope Francis a Communist? Well, no more than Jesus who warned his followers that they could not be his disciples unless they renounced all that they possess to follow him (Luke 14:33). Just as Jesus announced the Good News to the poor (Luke 7:22), so must the Church. And, as Mark’s gospel tells us, the Good News must include all the earth, and all earth’s creatures. (The Greek text of Mark 16:15 can mean “all creation,” or “all creatures.”) Interestingly, as Pope Francis is accused of being a communist, Cuba’s communist leader Raúl Castro has publicly considered returning to the faith in which he was baptized and formed as a child.
Of course, the Good News is deeply attractive . . . when it is genuinely lived out. Even a good communist like Raúl Castro knows this.
About Sister Lisa Marie
An Ursuline Sister of Cleveland, Sister Lisa Marie Belz is a professor at Ursuline College where she teaches courses in Scripture, Christian spirituality, and theology.
Sr. Lisa Marie holds a Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity from Loyola University Chicago as well as a Master of Theological Studies in Scripture from the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind., and a Master of Arts in Hispanic Ministry from Boston College and the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas.
In addition to her years as an educator, Sr. Lisa Marie served on the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team in El Salvador where she developed programs in lay pastoral leadership. Sr. Lisa Marie gives talks and retreats in both English and Spanish on themes related to Scripture, theology, and spirituality throughout Latin America and the United States.