Francis joins his voice in solidarity with those working with the poor

On October 25, the Bishop of Rome met with participants at the World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Rome to discuss the problems faced by the unemployed, the poor, the homeless and those who have lost their land.

Nov 11, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
On October 25, the Bishop of Rome met with participants at the World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Rome to discuss the problems faced by the unemployed, the poor, the homeless and those who have lost their land.

In his remarks, Francis called for solidarity with the poor. But what exactly is solidarity? “Solidarity is a word that…means more than some generous, sporadic acts,” said Francis.

“It is to think and act in terms of the community… It is also to fight against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and [loss of] land, housing, and social and labour rights.

The struggle is not easy for Christians and people of goodwill for we are confronting an Empire, which has formidable resources — a bit like Star Wars!

“It is to confront the destructive effects of the ‘Empire of Money:’ forcible displacements and migrations, human and drug trafficking, war, violence, and all of these realities that many of you suffer and that we all are called to address and transform.

“Solidarity, understood in its most profound sense, is a way of making history, and that is what the popular people’s movement are doing,” he declared.

Among the problems that poor and marginalised communities have to contend with are the control and takeover of public land and even water resources, the clearing of forests.

For many indigenous and rural communities, the land IS their life and when they lose it, they become lost and alienated, observed Francis. This separation from their land is not just a physical separation but an “existential and spiritual” one. In Southeast Asia, such monopolisation of land can be found in places like the Philippines, where a relatively small group of wealthy families control large tracts of land. Even closer to home, many indigenous people have found themselves at the mercy of large plantation companies or displaced by massive dam projects.

“Please,” Francis urged, “continue to fight for the dignity of rural families, for water, for life and for all that can benefit from the fruits of the land.”

Many others are also struggling with housing, debt, unemployment and the rising cost of living. In Malaysia, for instance, young people are finding that they are unable to afford new homes.

Francis said it was a shame that many cities neglected to provide proper housing for their people. “We live in cities that build towers, malls, and businesses, but abandon the parts where the marginalized reside — the peripheries.”

Youth unemployment is also a serious problem. Finding a secure job after graduation, or completing high school is not a guarantee, what more jobs for those who drop out from school. Some parts of Western Europe are experiencing up to 40 per cent unemployment. In Malaysia, more and more diploma holders and graduates are finding it difficult to find jobs, what more the school dropouts.

When they do find jobs, workers are often exploited by employers, and the minimum wage itself is hardly enough to raise a family in the urban areas. They are told they cannot be choosy, and so, some have to work long hours with little hope of job security.

Francis noted that the phenomenon of exploitation and oppression has taken on a new dimension.

The economy, as it stands, seems to cater to Big Business, the political elite, the top 1-5 per cent of the population — and the wealth is increasingly concentrated in their hands.

Catholic Social Teaching, however, tells us that the economy should serve the people and not the other way around.

Francis maintains that the whole social and economic system needs to be centred on the person, the image of God, created for the universe. So, the existing economic system needs to change. “We need to return to making human dignity the centre [of society]… and we need to create the alternative societal structures that we need.”

In the spirit of solidarity, Francis said he wanted to unite his voice to those of activists struggling for change.

The Bishop of Rome has certainly rocked the boat with his more inclusive and compassionate tone and he has not been immune to criticism, even from within the highest levels of the Church. He has lamented that critics don’t understand that the love for the poor is at the heart of the Gospel. “Demanding this isn’t unusual, it’s the social doctrine of the Church.”

It is this belief that is at the heart of the Gospel, that has driven Francis to criticise an economic order that has left millions excluded, homeless, unemployed and in hunger. But then, the Bishop of Rome has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of neo-liberal economic forces in Latin America and the impact on the poor, from his numerous visits to their homes in the slums of Argentina.

This first-hand witness has shaped his economic outlook in a way that many church leaders in North America and Europe might not appreciate — though what is happening in some European countries, faced with mounting debt levels and debilitating cost-cutting measures that have decimated public services, might soon change their views.

People’s movements have sprung up all over Latin America in response to the crippling effects of the Washington Consensus, and these movements have worked hard to reform unjust structures. They continue to campaign against the old oligarchical politics which focus mainly on economic growth and the integration of local economies into the exploitative corporate-led global economic system.

This exploitative system pays scant regard to the protection of the ecology, the rights of people to their land and the environment.

In response, the people’s movements have pushed for the empowerment of ordinary people, including workers, so that they can participate on their own terms in the economy instead of being oppressed and exploited.

Because of the struggles of the people and their movements in Latin America, one Brazilian theologian has noted: “Fewer and fewer are the means by which the dominant elites can return to power, with their neoliberal project that has ruined major countries and thrown a hundred million people in Europe and the United States out of work.”

Francis has come up with his own stirring call to rally the faithful and other concerned people: “Let’s say, together, with our heart: no family without a roof, no peasant farmer without land, no worker without rights, no person without dignified labour.”

Meanwhile, we can look forward to how the Bishop of Rome will fit the needs of the poor into his coming encyclical on the environment and the ecology, which could turn out to be one of the defining works of his stewardship of the Universal Church.

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