This morning the pastor at my parish gave a very good homily for the feast of Saint Martin of Tours. I was impressed as I have always had a deep devotion to Saint Martin and know quite a bit about him whereas my pastor is not a particularly pious man and often has somewhat of a featherweight approach to our Catholic heritage and culture—a typical problem for today’s undereducated clergy whether of the liberal or the conservative bent.
In his homily Father dragged out the old Saint Martin chestnut about cutting his cloak in half to give one half to the beggar—whom Father referred to as “a homeless man,” going somewhat beyond the hagiographical text and introducing a (not unreasonable) anachronism to help us today connect with a saint of seventeen centuries ago. Unfortunately, not being a historian he didn’t get it quite right. Martin didn’t cut his soldier’s cloak in half as much as he cut the lining out of it to give the beggar the warm fur lining while keeping the uniform part of his cloak for himself. I mean, he did cut his cloak in half, but not from top to bottom but rather separating outer from inner. Small point, but if one is going to be pedantic, as I like to be, these things matter.
What I really want to highlight in Father’s sermon today though was not simply the story about the beggar and the cloak, but the larger picture that Martin had a passion for the poor. He had this as a catechumen (when he divided his cloak) to when he was a monk to when he was a bishop. For Martin, the poor defined the Church and set its mission. That emphasis is so often lost on those for whom random acts of charity are sufficient fulfillment of the Gospel. For Martin, and especially as bishop, it was not a matter of occasionally giving of his—or the Church’s—surplus as it was of focusing all the Church’s attention on the needs of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
This is the Church to which Pope Francis is trying to return us. We live in a world afflicted by diverse poverties: spiritual, material, social, psychological, emotional. Francis’ desire for the Church to minister to the spiritual hungers of those who have suffered the pain of failed marriages, of those who find themselves emarginated because of their sexual orientation, of those who give themselves without the surety of commitment are all extensions of his concern for those who live under the weight of the cross of material poverty. Ironically—or actually without any irony at all—those who cannot see the pain of the spiritually poor most often are those who are content to throw a few crumbs of their leftovers to the materially poor and think they have satisfied their obligation as Christians. Like those critics of Jesus who were scrupulous on their tithing of garden herbs but neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness—they fuss over standing for communion or which way the priest faces the altar, but pay little or no attention to the gross injustices and severe pain in which so many today are trapped. Like the Priest or the Levite in the Gospel of Luke, they walk down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho turning a blind eye to the suffering of those who have been robbed and beaten by life but even worse than the Priest or Levite they are resentful of those who would stop and try to bind up the wounds of the suffering. And so Pope Francis’ vision of a Church that reaches out to the poor and the pained disturbs their comfort and they find refuge in the fantasyland of a Cardinal who traipses around the world in the furs and silks of a bygone princedom and call it religion.
Pope Francis’ agenda for the Church is truly revolutionary as he has set out to identify the Church not with those who have long comfortably occupied its pews but with those who, like the beggar of Martin’s day, shivered outside in the cold. His focus on those immigrants who line the shores of Tunisia in hopes of a boat to Lampedusa or those who huddle by our fenced southern border in hopes of finding their way through the desert has enraged countless of “good Catholics.” His washing the feet of prisoners and sick—including women and Muslims—has been decried by those who confuse patriarchy with the Church and confuse Allah with a deity other than the God of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Jesus. His condemnation of the death penalty irritates those self-styled pro-lifers who can’t see the inconsistencies of their argument. And his pastoral concern for those who are divorced and remarried, or are gay, or who live together without marriage baffle those who think that because of their moral rectitude they, not “sinners,” should bask in the papal limelight. As for me, I like it when Peter rocks the boat. It startles me into remembering how the Master did the same.