“How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings?” Pope Francis asked Monday, in another stirring cri de coeur on the fate of the poor, this time on the slender Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a fishing community of 6,000 people that has received 200,000 refugees seeking asylum in boats from Africa and the Middle East since 1999, according to Agence France Press.
The pope made his trip in response to recent news on drowning victims. Forty have died so far this year, 200 missing or drowned in 2012, “in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death,” said the pope.
Vatican Information Service released a transcript of his sermon.
“I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated.”
“Who wept for these people who were aboard the boat?" Pope Francis said in the homily at a soccer field, with 10,000 present according to the AP. "For the young mothers who brought their babies? For these men who wanted to support their families? We are a society that has forgotten how to cry."
In a striking allusion to the financial industry, Francis said: “The globalization of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed,’ responsible yet nameless and faceless.”
No other international leader has advanced a moral vocabulary linking poverty, global finance and a call to social conscience. Clearly, the pope wants to reinvigorate the faith of Catholics in a church trailed by scandals. Part of his strategy is to use the media lens on him to focus on people trapped at the bare edges of existence. He told Muslims yesterday, starting the fast of Ramadan, “The Church is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families.”
Francis’s critique of society stems from a spiritual aching found throughout Christianity, a sense of humanity severely out of balance. This is the argument made by theologian Matthew Fox in his new book, "Letters to Pope Francis."
“For centuries, the preoccupation within Western Christianity with Augustine’s neurotic question, ‘am I saved?,’ has set religion on a path of self-destruction and self-absorption that neither [saints] Francis nor Aquinas would recognize,” writes Fox. “Religion must change. Education must change. Business must change. Economics must change. Politics must change. I appreciate your passionate language when you say justice must be ‘extremely creative.’”
Fox’s books hit headlong with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal theologian who booted him from the Dominican order in 1992. He became an Anglican priest with a continued stream of writings on mysticism and cosmology at his Oakland-based University of Creation Spirituality. Few priests have gone to the margins like Matt Fox, a whirlwind writer, speaker and activist who leads liturgies with drums, chants and rhythms that fuse varied faith strands in an ecumenical rainbow.
"Letters to Pope Francis" is a polemic against the calcified power structure the pope inherited; but his tone is one of clear respect for the addressee. Fox ponders Francis’ 12th-century papal namesake.
“Francis was all for starting Christianity over — that is why his followers and others consciously rejected the term Christendom,” writes Fox. “They chose to reject the imperial church of Constantine and the privileges of the monastic/feudal establishment that owned so much property and controlled so much of the wealth and decision making of the era.”
Francesco, as Italians call him, embraced poverty with followers who were disaffected from the privileged church. Never a priest, he obtained papal permission to lead a movement of lay preachers and proselytizers. The Francis of history was radical, in the Greek sense, of redux — roots, origins, first things.
“What became a spiritual insight in Francis’ day remains a verdict of current Biblical scholarship,” he writes, “that the Church took a decisive detour away from Gospel values when it inherited the empire of the fourth century and began to bless the very mechanisms common to all empires.”
To many academic theologians and church functionaries Matt Fox is an apostate, marginalized, yesterday’s drum-beater for social change. But it is no irony that the roots he sees in today’s alienated Catholics are entwined with the redux of St. Francis who reached for the poor.
Fox deserves credit for his relentless consistency as a radical; he kept arguing for a church to broaden its thinking and boundaries, to welcome the outcasts, while the bishops and Vatican turned in, shunning clergy abuse victims, turning nuns into heretics and by the way disgorging billions in legal losses for sheltering pedophiles.
One can pity Pope Francis for the mess he has before him; but by criticizing an imperial economy that wreaks injustice on the poor, this pope is digging toward the same taproot that animates Matt Fox.
It is unlikely that the handlers around Francis would ever let him get a copy of a book like "Letters to Pope Francis." But there is an Italian edition forthcoming, and the pope who spends afternoons working the phones by himself to dig up information without a paper trail on how to reform the mess of a Roman Curia is surely a man to make his own decisions on what to read.
It is not a stretch to imagine this Francis nodding at certain passages from Fox, a latter-day Jeremiah with his trumpet wailing at the wall.
Jason Berry writes on religion for GlobalPost and is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.