At his inaugural mass, Pope Francis showed once again where his focus has been since he first took his vows, and where he wants it to remain.
The pontiff, Francis told the hundreds of thousands in attendance, “must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”
It’s a message that’s more relevant than ever: Francis’ papacy begins at a time when the globe has never been more socially unequal, economically volatile or environmentally unsustainable.
This is a world where 870 million men, women and children go to bed hungry every night, and where nearly 1 billion have no access to clean water – a world of man-made climate change and the plundering of creation for the few at the expense of the many.
The Roman Catholic Church, throughout its history, has worked for and alongside the poorest people in the world. Francis – a man with a strong history of working for the poorest in his home country of Argentina – now has the opportunity to reaffirm this focus, as well as expand the church’s engagement on issues of poverty.
But what can he actually hope to accomplish?
Much of the Catholic Church’s work on poverty takes place at the ground level: It provides an estimated 25 percent of the care worldwide for people living with HIV and AIDS. It runs more than 5,000 hospitals, with nearly half of those located in the Africa and the Americas. The Catholic Health Association of the United States is also the largest group of nonprofit health care providers in the country. The church runs nearly 20,000 clinics around the world; more than 15,000 homes for the elderly, those who are terminally ill, and the disabled; and nearly 10,000 orphanages, mainly in Asia.
But there is always room for the church to do more.
Because it spans the world and stands outside the market, business and government, the church is well-placed to look at the world afresh. It has the ability to offer a unique perspective on both the challenges of the poor and the actions of the rich that can cause poverty.
Pope Benedict took a step toward this goal with a 2009 encyclical called Caritas in Veritate, or “Charity in Truth.” In it, he warned of the dangers of unbalanced economic growth and against the pursuit of profit for its own sake.
At Francis’ inaugural, he spoke directly to the many powerful people in attendance, asking them to “be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” It’s a sign that he plans to continue to follow the path that Benedict started down.
A renewed focus on social justice isn’t just at the heart of the church’s central purpose, in accordance with its faith and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s also a vital component of the renewal and re-energization many claim is necessary for the modern church.
Francis can demonstrate to burgeoning congregations in Africa and the traditional stronghold of Latin America that he is a pontiff in touch with the immense challenges faced by ordinary people. And he also has a chance to engage new audiences in the increasingly secular developed world who are looking for something more than the worship of material wealth and possessions.