Kneeling at the Feet of the Poor: Pope Francis and Liberation Theology

The Pope's crucial work of engaging with liberation theology is changing the landscape of the church. It is putting the work of the church in the line with Jesus' own ministry which was for the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.
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Pope Francis is drawing attention from people around the world. Those who have never read anything about the Pope now follow his every move on the news and in social media. His witness in living the Gospel is drawing renewed interest in Catholicism and in what it means to be a Christian in a world filled with individualism, capitalism and consumerism.

The Pope has shown that he loves the poor, the marginalized and the outcasts. Just two weeks after Pope Francis' election, on Holy Thursday of 2013, he washed the feet of women and Muslim inmates at a juvenile detention center.

Again in 2014, he broke from tradition and washed the feet of 12 disabled and elderly people of women and non-Catholics. The Pope kneels to wash, dry and kiss the feet of disfigured, ignored and lost people to show that all are loved and worthy in the sight of Jesus. Then in 2015, he washed the feet of 12 inmates and a baby at Rome's prison on Holy Thursday to continue his tradition of serve as Jesus served.

The ministry of Pope Francis has caught the world's attention with the result that a renewed sense of hope, love, mercy and grace is beginning to fill the world wide church. Much of his ministry springs from his embrace of liberation theology. Since becoming Pope, he has invited Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican and has embraced other Latin American priests who speak about the poor and who support Liberation Theology. A Dominican priest, Gutierrez is regarded as the founder of Liberation Theology, since he invented the term with his first book, Teología de la liberación in 1971. Gutierrez understood that poverty was a result of unjust social structures and he sees that God has a preferential option for the poor.

Pope Francis has taken the initial steps toward making Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint. Romero was beatified in San Salvador on May 23, 2015. This process was met with much resistance before Pope Francis' time. This action focuses the world's attention on our sisters and brothers who are poor as it recognizes Romero's profound commitment to and work with people who are living in poverty and marginalized by the powerful.

Pope Francis emphasizes Jesus, who preached in Galilee, and who lived among the poor, rather than the Christ of Constantine's Nicene Creed, who was shaped for imperial wealth and power. Jesus was born at a time of religious corruption and imperial Roman domination. He was born during the reign of the despot Herod. His family became refugees and fled to Egypt. Jesus' ministry was about liberation. His ministry took place in the context of occupation, oppression and poverty.

Jesus resented the oppression and corruption of the Temple and the Herodians and earned the resentment of both. Those who are pro-imperial and those who support occupation are not living out the gospel. Herod accepted the privileges of those under occupation. The religious leaders taxed and suppressed the poor.

Jesus spoke to the people who were poor and who lived in rural areas. They were laughed at and marginalized, but Jesus argued that they were the salt of the earth. He taught and revealed that we measure character not by kingship, nor by the upper classes who were oppressors, but by how we treat the least of his brothers and sisters: the hungry and the naked, those who are pressed against the wall, those who are despised and those who are in need. Jesus empowered the poor, fed them, brought sight to them, and forgave them of their sins. He liberates his followers for mission: to feed the poor, take care of the needy, and set the captives free.

The ministry of Jesus for the poor is continued on by Gustavo Gutiérrez and people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Dr. King's last effort was building a multiracial, multicultural coalition of poor and working poor. He believed there should be a floor beneath which no one should fall and understood that poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Poverty often cripples the body, destroys the spirit, crushes our dreams and eliminates our life options.

Pope Francis stands in this tradition. Pope Francis understands that poverty is a systematic problem intertwined with the rise of capitalism, greed and globalization. Faced with this reality, he embraces the Jesus of history and not the Christ of mystery. This allows him to speak to the condition of the people in authentic ways.

The Pope's crucial work of engaging with liberation theology is changing the landscape of the church. It is putting the work of the church in the line with Jesus' own ministry which was for the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

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