By Muyiwa Adetiba
The words above are not mine. They belong to Jorge Bergoglio, known world-wide as Pope Francis; also referred to within the Vatican as the ‘Pope for the poor’ or derisively by some powerful personalities in the curia as ‘the poor Pope’. This impassioned plea was made at a speech he gave on July 7, 2013 to about six thousand seminarians from 66 countries. In calling for the future religious to live lives that are consistent with their teaching and preaching, he said: ‘It grieves me to see priests and nuns with the latest model of cars… .You must not do this! It is better to cycle, or use a smaller car.’ That was when he used these words that have resonated with me: ‘Think about the children who are dying of hunger’.
His admonition was not limited to the young priests and the future religious alone. He had even stronger words for bishops. On May 16, 2013, according to his biography titled ‘Pope Francis: Life and Revolution’, he launched a strong attack against bishops and priests who fall prey to the temptations of money and vanity and who, instead of being shepherds, are transformed into ‘rapacious wolves’. Quoting St Augustine, he said: ‘When a bishop follows money, when he exploits the sheep on his own behalf, he isn’t loved by the people, and that is a sign. And he himself comes to a bad end.’
This is not an epiphany; or a new line of thought that suddenly germinated when he became a Pope. Pope Francis had always lived for and empathised with the poor, preferring to move around in buses to fulfill his pastoral obligations even when he was a cardinal in his native Argentina. As if he needed reminding, a cardinal walked up to him when it became obvious that he was likely to be elected Pope and said ‘remember the poor’.
When I think of this Head of 1.2 billion Catholic faithful and Chief Administrator of the smallest but richest state in the world who has shunned every form of ostentation while preferring the company of the poor to that of the rich and mighty and compare him with our general overseers who openly covet the company of captains of industry and politics, I wonder if their religious beliefs stem from the same root. Till date, Pope Francis has rejected the palatial residence vacated by his predecessor to live in one of the tiny flats used by visiting bishops.
He has rejected the usual solid gold signet of a Pope for a silver plaited one. He has rejected the limousines and all the trappings of ‘importance’ associated with the papacy. And every cost saving decision he makes is with the plight of the poor and ‘the children dying of hunger’ in mind. Our general overseers on the other hand, live in palaces and drive fleets of luxurious cars oblivious to their environment and the poor in their churches. They have no qualms raising money from the poor for one grandiose scheme or the other while advising these same poor who approach them for financial assistance to wait on the Lord. They build schools that the children of the poor cannot attend and homes that a vast majority of their congregation cannot afford.
They forget that Peter, to whom Jesus gave the key of the church, was a common fisherman. Or that Paul, who did more than any man to spread the gospel had no bank account. Yet, neither was a burden on the early members of the household of God. Instead, they took care of the poor so that ‘no one claimed ownership of any possessions, but rather they shared all things in common. And there were no needy persons among them;’ (Acts). They forget the admonition of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless. Or James’ advice on faith and works when he said, ‘if a brother or sister is in need of clothes or food and one of you says to him, “May all go well with you; keep yourself warm and eat well” without attending to their material needs, what good is that?’(James).
Any genuine church of Christ should follow the teachings of its founder and try to meet the prevalent needs of the poor who are the meek of the earth. The early church came to Africa meeting those needs. They set up schools and built hospitals. They took people out of poverty by educating their minds and healing their bodies. Now the needs are different.
The youths are educated but unemployed. And they are restive. The church can help with employment if only some of its leaders can step away from the vanity of trying to build the largest church edifice in Africa or the biggest church community in the world and concentrate instead on taking kids off the streets. After all, God does not live in any house built by man. It is by clothing and housing the poor that we house God. The rest is vanity. Pope Francis has a word for a bishop who follows the path of vanity when he said ‘He acquires the spirit of careerism which damages the church in that he boasts, he likes being seen and likes being powerful’.
For starters, let the church develop massive integrated farms and offer the youths who would be working on the farms different kinds of incentives and arrangements. Let it feed Jesus’ sheep not only figuratively but literally as well. The country needs massive investments in agriculture and the church can help out. In doing this, it would not only be getting our youths off the unemployment market as agriculture still remains the largest employment of labour, it would be saving the country from an impending doom while fulfilling God’s injunction of feeding the poor.
Let the church leaders who are thinking of bigger churches, bigger mansions, bigger aeroplanes and newer cars think instead of the children in different parts of the country who are daily dying of hunger. It is time to stop the pursuit of money and avarice and remember again that Paul had no bank account. It is time to halt the ostentatious lifestyles of some of our religious leaders.