Bernardo M. Villegas
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Seamless Transition in the Papacy

          Like Jesus Christ whom they represent on earth, the Popes have been very human in displaying their individual and unique personal characteristics which distinguish them from one another.  In recent times, we had the person of Blessed John Paul II who came to the papacy with the vibrancy of youth and physical fitness.  Very predictably, his papacy was marked with his long-term engagement with the youth of the world manifested in the scores of gatherings he thoroughly enjoyed with young people who visited him in Rome and whom he visited all over the world on the occasions of the  World Youth Day celebrations.    Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in contrast, presented the figure of a consummate academician, an erudite scholar and prolific author of theological treatises.  Today, we have Pope Francis whose popular appeal is, without doubt, his simplicity and very visible love for the poor.  Whatever the differences in personal characteristics and preferences, however, there is also a common thread among them in the one and universal doctrine of Jesus Christ in all matters related to Catholic dogma and morals.

          Let us consider, for example, the social doctrine of the Church which consists of principles for reflection, criteria for judgement and directives for action in the social, political and economic realms.  The accent that Pope Francis has given from the very start of his papacy on the Christian preferential option for the poor should not be interpreted as an innovation in papal teachings or actuations.  He himself made this clear in his Address to the Diplomatic Corps last March 22, 2013.  In explaining his choice of the name of Francis (from St. Francis of Assisi), the first of several reasons he gave was as follows:  "One of the reasons was Francis' love for the poor.  How many poor people there are still in the world!  And what great suffering they have to endure!  After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and just."  Although we may expect his papacy to be conspicuous in its concern for the poor (as Blessed John Paul II stood out for his engagement with the youth and Benedict XVI for his brilliant dialogues with philosophers and theologians), it is undeniable that Christianity, following the example of its Founder, has always been actively engaged in helping  the poorest of the poor.

          I am positive that Pope Francis will not reinvent the wheel.  Among other documents that came from the hands of his predecessors in the Chair of Peter, he will be greatly inspired by what Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth):  "Life in many poor countries is still extremely insecure as a consequence of food shortages, and the situation could become worse:  hunger still reaps enormous numbers of victims among those who, like Lazarus, are not permitted to take their place at the rich man's table, contrary to the hopes expressed by Paul VI.  Feed the hungry is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods.  Moreover, the elimination of world hunger has also, in the global era, become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet.  Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional.  What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs, and also capable of addressing the primary needs and necessities ensuing from genuine food crises, whether due to natural causes or political irresponsibility, nationally and internationally.  The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.  This can be done by investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology that can make the best use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are more readily available at the local level, while guaranteeing their sustainability over the long term as well.  All this needs to be accomplished with the involvement of local communities in choices and decisions that affect the use of the agricultural land. .."

          Benedict XVI then continued to enumerate other pro-poor policies in the distribution and productive utilization of agricultural land.  According to him, it is necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.   The developed countries--such as those in the so-called Group of 7 (G-7)--should involve the poor countries in a spirit of solidarity in resolving the ongoing global economic crisis.  It is providential that in the expanded Group of 20 (G-20), there are developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China and Indonesia that are consulted in resolving world-wide problems.  These clear directives for action set forth by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate will surely inspire Pope Francis to strongly complement his personal manifestations of solidarity with the poor who are proximate to him with an appeal to the world leaders to formulate policies and programs that will go to the roots of poverty in both developed and developing countries.  His having had first hand exposure to the ups and downs of the Argentinian economy--where a large proportion of the population still live in dehumanizing poverty despite the abundance of agricultural resources-- over the last thirty years will come in good stead as he translates his preferential option for the poor into very practical advice to world leaders about how to eradicate global poverty in the coming decade or so.  Thanks to the seamless transition from one papacy to another in matters of doctrine, Pope Francis will have the wherewithalls to influence international public opinion about the solutions to global poverty.  For comments, my email address is