Particular men and women, so some folks tell us, aren’t that important, because if you really want to “change the world” and help people, you must turn your gaze from the person you see in front of you and contemplate instead social structures/societal forces/the “root causes” of poverty.
Do individual human beings matter?
They do to Pope Francis, who had 150 of Rome’s homeless persons receive a tour of the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel.
Particular men and women, so some folks tell us, aren’t that important, because if you really want to “change the world” and help people, you must turn your gaze from the person you see in front of you and contemplate instead social structures/societal forces/the "root causes" of poverty.
This kind of thinking is common in places like the New York Times editorial pages, which seem to think Pope Francis shares their philosophy. But I’d say the pope’s treatment of those homeless persons shows that his approach to changing the world and helping others is entirely different.
First, Pope Francis avoided publicity — the fact that he was going to join the tour and meet with each person was a secret, and when it did happen, it occurred away from any cameras or reporters. (Odd, isn’t it, that philanthropists and social reformers who claim that particular persons don’t matter because grand social forces rule everything, nonetheless seek the spotlight for themselves?)
Second, Pope Francis aimed his care at a small, manageable number of persons, 150, and not at thousands or millions or worse, some abstraction like “the marginalized.”
Third, the Times and others who deal in disembodied social forces usually condescend to those they would help by treating the poor as powerless victims of social inequities — as persons who have nothing and can do nothing for themselves or for anyone else. Yet the Pope said the opposite. He did not speak abstractly about the poor; he spoke to every single one of these struggling persons. And he didn’t say, “I denounce the sinful structures of our globalized economic system that victimize the class to which you belong and deprive your class of material riches.” No, Pope Francis said that he, a world leader who lives amid palaces, lacks something that only they, in their dignity, could provide him: “I’m in need of prayers by people like you,” he explained.
Now that is a vision of equality.
Pope Francis sees these poor men and women as his equals, because they and he are all equal in their inherent dignity, whatever differences they may have in material goods, power, and privilege. And you may be sure that the Pope would warn his fellow privileged-class members that a homeless woman on the street may be closer to eternal salvation than he is, or I am, or you are.
Treating the less fortunate in this way, and stressing their God-given dignity, is not just a more noble or more true way of approaching poor persons. It is also a more practical way to help them to overcome the real struggles they face.
Take an example I cited once before, from a previous occupant of the papal palaces, Pope John Paul II, a pontiff that the Times would likely consider quite different from Pope Francis.
The story was first told by the Catholic writer Scott Hahn, who heard it from an American priest who had visited Rome for a conference with John Paul II. Shortly before the day’s papal audience, the priest saw a man begging who looked familiar. Then he recognized the beggar as a man who had gone to seminary with him in Rome years before; the two men had been ordained priests together.
Shaken by this encounter, the priest blurted out the story to the pope when he met him that day. John Paul promised to pray for the beggar and invited both men to join him at dinner.
In other words, the rich pope offered to give things — prayers and a meal — to the poor priest, but that is not the end of the story. Toward the meal’s end, John Paul asked for a few minutes alone with the beggar-priest. Afterwards, the beggar told his priest friend what happened.
“As soon as you left, the pope clasped my hands and said, ‘Father, would you hear my confession?’”
“‘I’m a beggar,’ I said.”
“‘So am I. We are all beggars.’”
So the beggar-priest heard the pope’s confession. And then, dropping to his knees, he tearfully asked John Paul to hear his.
The poor beggar, in other words, a victim of God-knows-what social inequities, still had something valuable that the rich pope needed, and having this fact brought home to him made a difference in the beggar’s life. Both the beggar and the pope needed to give and to receive, and in this mysterious encounter and exchange, both men were enriched.
You could also say that both men had their freedom enlarged, because by mutually giving and receiving they were rejecting the notion that their personal wills are not free, or are insignificant compared to the vast, impersonal social forces that supposedly rule our lives.
The French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville saw clearly what is at stake if we accept the idea that we lack free will: “This doctrine of fatality,” Tocqueville warned, makes “a tight and immense chain that envelopes the whole human race and binds it.” Such a doctrine “is particularly dangerous” in our times, when people “are only too inclined to doubt free will.” Only if we resist this falsehood will we be “elevating souls and not completing their prostration.”
The novelist Evelyn Waugh put it more simply: “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”
Let us give the last word to Pope John Paul’s friend Mother Teresa, who knew something about helping the poor, and managed to do so both by her personal actions and also with the aid of thousands of other persons in dozens of countries:
If someone feels that God wants from him a transformation of social structures, that’s an issue between him and his God. We all have the duty to serve God where we feel called. I feel called to help individuals, to love each human being. I never think in terms of crowds in general but in terms of persons. Were I to think about crowds, I would never begin anything. It is the person that matters. I believe in person-to-person encounters.
The John Paul II anecdote comes from The Word Among Us. The Tocqueville quotation comes from the chapter “On Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Centuries” in Democracy in America. The Waugh quotation comes from chapter two of the novel Brideshead Revisited. The Mother Teresa quotation is found in No Greater Love.