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  • John Thavis

Poverty and mercy: key themes in Cuba

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

In Cuba, Pope Francis has not said much about church-state political questions. Instead he is diving deeply into his call for a church that is poor, merciful and forgiving.

His talks Sunday and Monday have been fascinating, and at times pure Francis – his off-the-cuff riff on “poverty” in an encounter with church ministry personnel was classic.

But if the pope uses the same language when he comes to the United States, he’s likely to need an official explainer. I’m not sure most people will understand what he means by evangelical poverty and the idea that “wealth makes people poor.”

“How many souls have been destroyed! Generous souls … that began well and then became attached to that rich worldliness, and ended up badly. In other words, mediocre. They ended up without love,” he told priests, nuns and seminarians Sunday evening.

“The spirit of poverty, the spirit of detachment, the spirit of leaving everything to follow Jesus. This leaving everything is not something I made up. It’s found various times in the Gospel. In the call of the first ones, who left their boat, their nets and followed him. Those who left everything to follow Jesus,” he said.

The church, too, has to resist the temptation to accumulate wealth. “Bad accountants are among the best blessings for the church, because they make it free, they make it poor,” he said.

He echoed that message when talking a little later with young people, saying youths today are “part of the throwaway culture.”

“All of us know that today, in this empire of the god money, things are thrown away and people are thrown away, children are thrown away, because they are unwanted, because they kill them before they are born, the elderly are thrown away — I’m speaking of the world in general — because they don’t produce anymore. In some countries, there is legal euthanasia, but in so many others there is a hidden, covered up euthanasia. Youth are thrown away because they are not given work.”

When it comes to the role of the church, the pope emphasized closeness to the people, especially those who are suffering and who need forgiveness. Priests in particular, he said, need to seek out the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick, and make the confessional a place of mercy.

When someone confesses their weaknesses, the pope told priests, “don’t yell at them, don’t punish them, don’t castigate them. If you have no sin, then you can throw the first stone.” He added: “Please, do not tire of forgiving. Be forgivers. Do not hide behind fear and rigidity.”

At a Mass Monday in Holguin, Cuba’s third-largest city, Pope Francis returned to the theme of mercy and its capacity to change people. He said Christ’s calling of St. Matthew, a tax collector who became his disciple, showed this transformative power.

“Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside,” he said. “He leaves behind his table, his money, his exclusion. Before, he had sat waiting to collect his taxes, to take from others; now, with Jesus he must get up and give, give himself to others.”

The church’s attention should be directed especially toward those who feel excluded or abandoned, the pope said.

“May we learn to see them as Jesus sees us. Let us share his tenderness and mercy with the sick, prisoners, the elderly and families in difficulty.”

In Havana, the pope also had some interesting words on the concept of church unity. They were part of the text he set aside in his meeting with priests and nuns, but the Vatican published them on its web site.

Unity is not uniformity, he said, and can never be imposed or forced by decree. On the contrary, it depends at times on open expression of disagreement.

“Conflicts and disagreements in the church are to be expected and, I would even say, needed. They are a sign that the church is alive and that the Spirit is still acting, still enlivening her. Woe to those communities without a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’! They are like married couples who no longer argue, because they have lost interest, they have lost their love.”

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