In most of his talks, either at St. Peter’s Basilica or on one of his pastoral visits around the world, Pope Francis repeats the Gospel imperative to care for the poor. “They’re at the heart of the Gospel,” he said July 13. Not only has Pope Francis made the plight of the poor a cornerstone of his papacy, he has given concrete examples of how we can embrace and welcome the poor in our church and society.
Pope Francis understands that the economic gap between the extremely wealthy and poor is scandalous and continues to widen. That is why he has made such strong statements in defense of the poor and against the economic systems that keep people in poverty.
“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor,’” Pope Francis says in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”
On several occasions last week in South America, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of faith in embracing the downtrodden. In Paraguay, he visited with some of the country’s poorest citizens who live in Banado Norte, a former garbage dump on the outskirts of Asunción and home to around 100,000 people.
Addressing the crowd at Banado Norte he said, “It doesn’t matter how often you go to Sunday Mass. If you don’t have a heart of solidarity, if you don’t know what is happening to your people, your faith is very weak, or it is sick, or it is dead. It is a faith without Christ, without God, without brothers and sisters.”
Pope Francis’ focus on the disparity between the rich and poor led to an interesting discussion aboard the papal airplane while returning to Rome after his eight-day visit to Latin America. He was asked about his oversight of discussing the middle class.
According to a New York Times report, Ludwig Ring-Eifel, a German journalist, posed a question about the omission.
“Thank you,” Pope Francis replied. “You are right. It’s an error of mine not to think about this.”
He told reporters that a shrinking middle class has created a growing divide between the rich and poor, which is why he spends so much time preaching about care for the poor. “They are at the heart of the Gospel,” he said.
While he said he’s addressed the need and importance of the middle class “a little in passing,” the pope noted that he must put more emphasis on them in the future. “Talking about the common people, the simple people, the workers, that is a great value, no?” he said. “But I think you’re telling me about something I need to do. I need to delve further into this.”
Last year, Oxfam America issued a report on extreme inequality around the world. The report notes that the richest 85 people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world. “Between March 2013 and March 2014, these 85 people grew $668 million richer each day,” stated the Oxfam report.
Bridging the gap between the extremely rich and poor should be a concern to everyone because the middle class is being squeezed out of the equation. Pew Charitable Trusts reported last March that, in all 50 states, the percentage of “middle-class households,” those making between 67 percent and 200 percent of the state’s median income, shrank between 2000 and 2013.
A society with a robust middle class is a factor in providing and caring for those on the fringes.
When Pope Francis arrives in the United States next fall, in addition to rallying for the poor, perhaps he will also champion the middle class and call for measures to boost their ranks.