In the footsteps of the people’s Pope: by Angus Ritchie
An Anglican priest working in London’s East End reflects on the vision Francis sketches out in Let Us Dream
THERE IS only a Westminster because there was once also an Eastminster. The Abbey of St Mary Graces was founded by Edward III in 1350. Dissolved in 1539, its shrine has been restored inside the local Catholic Church of the English Martyrs, in the parish of Tower Hill.
The streets around this church in east London contain stark contrasts of wealth and status. At the height of the pandemic, Pope Francis spoke of the “ordinary people – often forgotten people” who were “in these very days writing the decisive events of our time”. Coronavirus was revealing how our common life was sustained by “doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, care givers, providers of transport, law and order forces …”. These are all well represented in Eastminster today.
In his new book Let Us Dream, Francis advocates a Copernican revolution in our politics. Instead of viewing politics from the places of political and economic power (the “Westminsters” of the nation), he summons us to see it from the vantage point of the peripheries. For Francis, the “often forgotten people” of places like Eastminster are the true centre of the political firmament.
LIKE ST PAUL at the Areopagus, Francis addresses our culture on its own terms to point out its spiritual vacuum. Western conceptions of liberty and equality have become untethered from the idea of solidarity and a vision of a truly common good. The “demagogic popu lism” of the far Right has germinated in the soil of an atomised and technocratic liberalism. The Left has its own fake populism, which claims to act in the interests of ordinary people but in reality looks down on their institutions and attitudes as backward and outdated.
Pope Francis is clear that neither the popu lism of the Right or the populism of the Left is adequate to our situation. “Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organisation,” Francis writes, “will be able to change our future.” As Pope, just as when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis seeks to encourage the development of leaders who are from within the poorest and least visible communities. As Anna Rowlands says: “Francis asks us to find ways to listen that will help make visible and vocal those who disappear within our urban culture: to overcome our own and our neighbours’ anonymity.”
PHOTO: CNS COURTESY OF MARIA ELENA BERGOGLIO
Fr Jorge Bergoglio, before he became Pope Francis, serving the poor in Buenos Aires
Contrary to right-wing detractors, Francis’ vision is shaped by Mary rather than Marx. The “Magnificat” articulates the two themes at its heart, as it speaks of a God who is incarnate among the poor and the primary actor in their exaltation. These are the spiritual bulwarks against the anxious and over-hasty forms of activism that are unable to develop leaders that come from the grass roots.
Let Us Dream is written in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh, who at one time worked with the UK’s largest community organising coalition, Citizens UK. You can get a sense of what Francis’ vision for a politics of the future might look like in the “inclusive populism” of community organising. Francis calls on the Church to open its doors to such popular movements; not to take them over, but to offer them “spiritual accompaniment”.
I HAVE worked with East End churches, mosques and schools involved in community organising since 1998. Authentic community organising is necessarily slow, but over time there is no more fruitful approach. Its campaigns develop the confidence and agency of more and more local citizens, rather than burning out a small cadre of (usually more middle-class) activists.
The congregations around Eastminster have been showing what this looks like in practice. Members of the parish of the English Martyrs and the local Anglican parish of St George-in-the-East, where I serve as assistant priest, are working together on something called the Open Table project – organising for justice with and for people who are homeless or who are vulnerably housed. This work has also been supported by Muslim neighbours, including the nearby Darul Ummah Mosque.
As part of the wider Citizens UK alliance, they have recently secured funding to provide supported housing for homeless people who were placed in hotels at the height of the pandemic, but are now back on the streets. Opposite St George-in-the-East is a plot of land which has lain undeveloped for decades, its ownership moving between faceless companies registered in tax havens. In July, at an online gathering of more than 100 people from local churches, mosques and schools, Rosalie Castillo from the Open Table team described her experience of 10 years of homelessness. The event secured a commitment from the deputy mayor of Tower Hamlets that the council would do “everything in its power” to secure the site to house these units for seven years.
It seems to me that initiatives like this, which place the voices and needs of the poorest at the heart of political decision-making, are an example of the Copernican revolution to which Francis is calling us. It has implications for the Church as well as for civil society. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis’ interest was in the spirituality of the poorest. Progressive Catholics, who tended to assume that the poor needed to be weaned off their traditional religiosity, complained that under his leadership “popular spirituality had become the paradigmatic piety”.
THE ACTION of Castillo and the wider Open Table team is inextricably bound up in their spiritual lives. During the pandemic, De Mazenod House (the retreat centre next to the Church of the English Martyrs) has been working with the Centre for Theology and Community (based at St George-in-theEast) to develop The People’s Rosary Project. Its website (www.thepeoplesrosary.org) shares the testimonies of Christians who live and work in east London, and have prayed the Rosary during the pandemic. Watching and listening to these videos, the depth and power of Francis’ vision hit me afresh. Those who stand closest to Mary in their contemplation are often those who, like her, know economic and social insecurity.
The spirituality of those who have “a heart for the poor” needs to be nourished and formed in a Church with the poorest at its heart. Then they, and she, will teach the whole Body of Christ how to pray, and thereby how to act.
Angus Ritchie is the director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and author of Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in the Global Age (University of Notre Dame Press).
14 | THE TABLET | 12 DECEMBER 2020