Clemens SEDMAK, A Church of the Poor: Pope Francis and the Transformation of Orthodoxy. Maryknoo, NY: Orbis Books, 2016. pp.218. $32.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-206-2. Reviewed by Marie CONN, Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA 19118.
Sedmak opens with the memory of Pope Francis embracing a horribly disfigured man. For Sedmak, the pope’s gesture conveyed a message without any intention of doing so: the gesture of reaching out to a man on the margins is “the key to a Church of the Poor.” (viii) And, although a vision of a poor church can be described as a defining factor in Pope Francis’ papacy, it will not just happen. Such a church has to be the result of both a choice and a commitment.
Archbishop Romero emerges as one of the more powerful influences on the pope. From Romero, the pope finds some of the inspiration to see the gospel with fresh eyes and then to witness to that gospel.
Francis’ encyclical, Evangelii gaudium is the thread tying much of the book together. It puts joy at the center of faith and mission. Our inner state, according to Sedmak, reflects our moral and spiritual condition, determining how we make decisions and how we relate to the world. When our inner state looks only to our own interests, there can be no room for the poor. The encyclical establishes “an explicit link between an individual interiority and the politics of poverty”. (EG5)
Pope Francis challenges us to be open both to divine creativity and to the cry of the poor. The voices of the marginalized have theological relevance. There is no room for fear which closes, rather than opens, the doors of the church. Genuine encounters transforms hearts and minds.
Sedmak then turns his attention to the economic dimensions of a church of the poor, something he calls a “Sabbath economy.” He presents an interesting review of the various interpretations of Jesus’ own economic situation: although he often sides with the poor, and seems to endure occasional homelessness, as the son of a carpenter, Jesus was probably lower middle class. “Jesus chooses social exclusion but builds circles and networks of social inclusion; he does not forgo material infrastructure for its own sake; he does not rebuff in a harsh or severe manner. (37) I was particularly struck by one sentence. “A deeper reading of the Gospels does not make for innocent reading; it is painful, opening up wounds and plunging the reader into darkness.” (38) My own scriptural mentor used to say that, if the bible makes you comfortable, you are not reading it right.
The next section of the book asks how we gain understanding through poverty. The most relevant characteristics of the poor are vulnerability and dependence. But we are all wounded and vulnerable in some way. Neither material nor spiritual poverty is desirable. Poverty is humility and stressful. Sedmak provides poignant examples of real people who experienced material poverty, with its accompanying lack of identity and options. Pope Francis insists that the poor have much to teach us. (EG198)
“Poverty is provocative if preached either as the result of injustice or as demanded by Christ. In both cases it demands societal and structural change.” (124) Sedmak suggests that the main cost of a real church of the poor is to live a kenotic existence, forgoing privileges which are the mark of power. He includes a review of the points of the Catholic Social Tradition which deal with distributive justice.
The final chapter is an extended discourse on the various dimensions and understandings of orthodoxy, under the subheadings of Propositional, Institutional, Existential, and the Orthodoxy of Pilgrims. His “Epilogue” addresses the question of what it means to love God. His first response is that it means to recognize that we are loved by God. Flowing from this, it means to respond to this loving God by loving God in turn. We love God by truly honoring the Incarnation, loving the Jesus with real “hair and tears.” (191) Finally, Sedmak urges us to explore human, personal love, which is the key to a proper relationship with God.
Overall, Sedmak has made use of a wide variety of sources; his 16-page Bibliography has value in itself. This book is probably too dense for many undergraduate students; I would recommend it for advanced undergraduates, for graduate students, and for serious adult study groups.