A couple of weeks ago I attended a Book Launch at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. The book "The Preferential Option for the Poor; A Short History and a Reading Based on the Thought of Bernard Lonergan" by Dr Rohan Curnow was launched by the Jesuit Lawyer Fr Frank Brennan.
During the launch presentation Fr Brennan reminded those listening that the term and indeed the received Catholic Doctrine “The Preferential Option for the Poor” had its origins in South America. In many ways this particular Catholic teaching developed from below up. That is it began with those who were living and working closely with the poor and oppressed reflecting theologically on their experience. The fruit of this theological reflection then found its way into discussions amongst Bishops both locally and regionally. Notably the phrase Preferential Option for the Poor appeared in documents produced through meetings of Episcopal Conferences in Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM).
While most Catholics are aware who their Bishop is and some may have a sense of a national body or Bishops Conference the idea that representatives from Bishops Conferences in a region meet on a regular basis is not so well known. CELAM is one such gathering. In our own region representatives from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference attend meetings of the Federation of Catholic Bishops in Oceania (FCBCO) at regional meetings every four years. To Australia’s north the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) meet on regular basis. This organisation has representatives from 19 Conferences of Bishops (including 4 from India) and 9 associate members from the emerging churches such as Macau and Uzbekistan. Both the CELAM and the FABC have active secretariats that keep the work of the Federations going between meetings.
Pope Francis is of course from Argentina and before he was ordained a Bishop he held senior positions with the Jesuits in his region. The notion of a preferential option for the poor first moved out of the villages and urban settlements of South America to a topic for discussion by Bishops at the 1968 CELAM conference. It is interesting to note that the words “new evangelisation” are also recorded in the proceedings of this meeting.
When St John Paul II used the term “New Evangelisation” in addressing the CELAM conference in 1983 he was citing an idea that echoed with the South American Bishops who were present.
It is fair to say that the meaning of the terms “Preferential Option for the Poor” and “New Evangelisation” have been a source of discussion and sometimes disagreement, during the 45 years that have passed since 1968. The first President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation Archbishop Fisichella reported that when he was appointed to the position in 2010 he discovered 27 different definitions of New Evangelisation.
In terms of the “Preferential Option for the Poor” this teaching has also had something of a rocky history. Reflecting on what it might mean one school of thought viewed the Option as an ethical directive. That is in accord with the dictates of charity, the poor need to be provided for. Another school of thought, principally but not exclusively out of South America, understood the “Preferential Option for the Poor” to refer to a radical call to interpret the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and dispossessed. From this viewpoint is the Preferential Option for the Poor is a call for the whole Church to be converted by interpreting the gospel through the eyes of the poor.
Of note in this context is that Pope Francis in writing the Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) did not follow the previous practice of basing the Exhortation on the fruits of the Synod of Bishops, which in this case was on the “New Evangelisation”. Pope Francis instead used the proceedings of the Synod as just one source among many. Included amongst the other sources are the proceedings of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops conducted in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil. Cardinal Bergoglio is listed as an author of this document.
Speaking then as participant at the Aparecida meeting Cardinal Bergoglio cited the region’s “scandalous inequality, which damages both personal dignity and social justice.” Continuing, the future pope said “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
While it may be still too early to say where Pope Francis stands on a range of issues from his actions and his words he is giving the term “New Evangelisation” a distinctive meaning. It also appears that the understanding Pope Francis has of the Catholic teaching Preferential Option for the Poor is also close to the radical call to interpret the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and dispossessed with the consequent call for the whole Church to be converted.
Perhaps we get an inkling of what “New Evangelisation” and “Preferential Option for the Poor” mean for Pope Francis from the following paragraph for Joy of the Gospel.
Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care. EG # 200
As I read Pope Francis in his words and his actions he is promoting the notion that our evangelising zeal should be preferentially directed to the poor.
The pope sees the poor as people whose need for God is great and who through our friendship will form a friendship with God. Perhaps what is new in the evangelisation Pope Francis is promoting is that our evangelisation be preferential directed towards the poor and specifically translated into a privileged religious care towards them.
Dr John Francis Collins