Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with the poor at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy, Nov. 12, 2021. The visit was in preparation for the celebration of the World Day of the Poor. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Luke Stocking: In God’s name, ‘social poets’ rise

By 
  • November 13, 2021

Jonathan Castillo is a cartonero in Argentina — a collector of discarded recyclables.

He tells this story: “As you know, when kids go to school they are asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Many want to be superheroes, many want to fly to the moon. And my son answered he wanted to be a cardboard waste collector. I am very proud he said this. I was sad when the teacher called me and asked me why my son would want this, since it is the lowest job of all — not a life. It made me feel … it made me feel sad when that teacher asked me why my son would want to collect cardboard waste. And after I told her about our journey and everything we had to go through for this sector to be in a better place in society today and not so excluded from the system, she understood me.”

Pope Francis also hears and understands. Jonathan tells this story in a video that was part of the fourth world meeting of social movements. If you have not yet read the Pope’s message to this world meeting, you should. So much of what Pope Francis says becomes clearer if you listen to the same voices that he listens to — people like Jonathan.

In his message of Oct. 16, 2021 he says, “Thank you for the video we have just seen. … Thank you for including me in the historical process that you are going through, and thank you for sharing with me this fraternal dialogue that seeks to see the great in the small and the small in the great, a dialogue that is born in the peripheries, a dialogue that reaches Rome and wherein we may all feel invited and engaged.”

Jonathan is a member of the Unión de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Economía Popular (UTEP). This basically translates as “Union of workers of the popular economy.” UTEP is one of the members of the organizing committee for the World Meeting of Social movements. Since 2014 there have been four of these meetings. They have been organized as an initiative of Pope Francis and the Vatican for the purpose of promoting this dialogue between the Church and popular movements of the world.

You could not be blamed for never having heard of these meetings. They do not often make the news, not even the Catholic news. Popular movements do not fit the narrative that the poor are there to be passive recipients of charity or to be empowered to succeed in our current socio-economic system. They make people feel uncomfortable. In his first address in 2014, Francis said incisively, “The poor not only suffer injustice, they struggle against it.”

It is this struggle against injustice that characterizes popular movements — impoverished and marginalized people like Jonathan who organize themselves and their communities to question and change the conditions that oppress them.

The goal of the dialogue is to join the voice of the Church to the authentic struggles that popular movements are organized around — centred around the themes of “Land, Shelter and Work.” In this most recent address, the Pope makes it clear that he does not mind being a “pest,” adding his voice to these struggles. “I make a pest of myself with my questions,” he says, “and I go on asking. And I ask everyone in the name of God.” There are nine “in the name of God” statements addressing the usual suspects of power, including the banking, extractive, telecom, tech, weapons, pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries.

The dialogue is also there to show the popular movements of the world that the Church has something relevant to offer them — its social doctrine.

As Catholics who hold this traditional teaching of the Church, we are called by the Pope to be “social poets” alongside the popular movements of the world. They are poets because of their “ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion.”

If we respond to that call, perhaps our own children will want to follow in our footsteps the way Jonathan’s son wants to follow in his.

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.)

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