A Church of the Poor
Pope Francis and the Transformation of Orthodoxy
Clemens Sedmak opens A Church for the Poor by recounting Pope Francis’s embrace of Vincio Riva in St. Peter’s Square in early November 2013. For Sedmak, the Pope’s gesture toward a terribly disfigured man conveys a message without any intention of doing so (viii). It is an embodied expression of orthodoxy. The Pope’s self-forgetting—kenotic—act of tenderly hugging a man on “the peripheries” is “the key to a Church of the Poor” (viii). While the visions of a poor church and a Church of the Poor are a hallmark of Pope Francis’s pontificate, such a church will not just happen (x). It requires a joyful commitment to perform the gospel of Jesus Christ; it demands a church divested and stripped of the spirit of power and wealth—“the spirit of worldliness” (xi). Such is the church that the Pope beckons the global Church to become.
In fact, the Pope’s gesture functions as an icon of Sedmak’s argument that Pope Francis calls the Church to understand orthodoxy in a new key. Sedmak asks the reader to “see through” Francis’s action to the poverty and solidarity of the gospel. The poor are not objects of charity but our “teachers and evangelizers” (xix).
Insights into the meaning of Francis’s understanding of “being poor,” suggests Sedmak, come from the powerful influence of Archbishop Oscar Romero. After the assassination of his friend Father Rutilio Grande, Romero underwent a personal, vocational, and theological transformation. He desired a freedom in God experienced through being faithful to Christ in loving the poor of El Salvador. “Romero changed his epistemic practices by being with the poor; this changed the content and the framework of knowledge he had and would have of the poor,” contends Sedmak (2). Francis draws inspiration from Romero’s witness for “the transformation of orthodoxy.” Sedmak’s aim in his book is indeed to probe the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting needed if the Church is to heed the call of Francis—and Romero.
This book is both inspired by and a meditation on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. In this text, the Pope instructs the faithful to put “joy at the center of faith and mission” (9). Sedmak contends that our interior state, or epistemic condition, reflects our spiritual and moral condition (10). Our interior state shapes and determines our dispositions and attitudes, and how we decide to act in the world. An interior state focused on selfish interests and consumed with power and possessions leaves no room for the poor. However, an interior state “properly and rightly governed” by the joy and mercy of the gospel will compassionately encounter and attend to the poor and the marginalized, which opens epistemic practices to divine creativity and personal transformation (13). Thus, the papal document “establishes an explicit link between individual interiority and the politics of poverty” (11).
Indeed, Pope Francis, says Sedmak, epistemically and socially challenges believers to understand that the poor have much to teach us. This requires the valorization of the “others” that have been exploited and excluded, and “a decision to be confronted with the realities of poverty” (93). As Sedmak insists, “Within a Church of the Poor there can be no claim to genuine knowledge of poverty without the experience of poverty; there can be no deep understanding without the deep encounter with poor people.” (95-96). Openness to the poor can convert our hearts, minds, and imaginations, resulting “in new and renewed epistemic practices leading to a new and renewed epistemic culture” in the Church (xix). A Church formed and shaped from within, by the poor, is a Church that “recognizes the poor as having and being the healing and salutary properties for its own existence and meaning in the world” (104).
For Francis, argues Sedmak, choosing to be a Church of the poor transforms an understanding of orthodoxy. Truthfully attending the gospel means that Jesus transforms our “epistemic situation . . . by expanding [our] epistemic horizons” (33). Orthodoxy is thus not merely concerned with propositional truths. Indeed, there can be no orthodoxy without orthopraxy and orthopathy (163). A faithful Church cannot be obsessed with dogma. Rather, a vulnerable Church requires “epistemic mercy”—the acceptance of the instruction and wisdom of people on the margins—and “the willingness to allow the chaos of reality to shape one’s thinking” (174). The cantus firmus of the Francis’ vision of a kenotic ecclesiology “are the motifs of emptiness and emptying” (p. ix). Thus, orthodoxy is authenticated in discipleship. If the Church is to be obsessed with anything, it is a desire to live orthodoxy faithfully, vulnerably, and imaginatively on the edges of society and culture. This suggests that orthodoxy is never static but ever dynamic, fluid, capacious, and constantly renegotiated as the Church lives the plerosis of Jesus’ gospel.
Perhaps a way of reading Sedmak’s chapters entitled “The Joy of the Gospel: Orthodoxy as Discipleship,” “Poverty and the Wound of Knowledge,” and “A Church of the Poor” is as a series of meditations of the holiness of the Church. The story of Jesus tells us that holiness is not about separation and distance. Rather, holiness is about going to the poor, the humiliated, the vulnerable. Holiness involves taking the risk to go, in the name of Jesus, where it is most difficult to go. Thus, there should be no tension between holiness, involvement in the world, and orthodoxy. Indeed, orthodoxy is action and mission nourished by “costly joy” (98). Being orthodox involves attending to the cry of the poor, befriending the poor, sharing material resources with the poor. It demands embracing the poverty of Christ—a liberative solidarity with other people, especially the poor, rooted in friendship with God. Prophetically seized by God’s self-dispossessing love, the Church of the Poor is to surrender its privileges as well as denounce and overcome the spirit of worldliness (104). A Church of the Poor is thus called to be a tearful precariat that “listens to those who have been epistemically excluded from society and take them seriously” (91).
While Francis advances the themes of his predecessors, Sedmak’s account clearly demonstrated his fresh reception of Vatican II, as well as the influence of liberation theology on the pontiff’s vision of ecclesial renewal and revolution. Sedmak’s vision of a generous orthodoxy shaped by Pope Francis is inspiring. Such orthodoxy is a needed corrective to the absolute certainty and triumphalism that has often marked Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, Sedmak’s meditation on what it would mean for the Church to embrace Francis’s vision is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church, but is ecumenical in scope. One nagging issue throughout the book was Sedmak’s lack of attention to the implications of Pope Francis’s vision of the poor church for the liturgy and sacramental life of the Church. It is through participation in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, that the faithful are enabled to “see through” to the meaning of the self-emptying logic of divine life and of Christian life. Lastly, this book does require intellectual engagement and the ability to understand complex concepts, both theoretical and epistemological in nature. For that reason, it is best for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.
Mark S. Medley is associate professor of theology at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
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