Cardinal: Pope telling clergy to ‘lower themselves,’ forget money

Rome — Pope Francis is calling on Catholic priests and clergy around the world to stop seeking positions of power or authority and to instead "lower themselves" in service to the poor and those most in need, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz has said.

The Brazilian prelate, who leads the Vatican's office for religious life, said: "We of the clergy must lower ourselves … we consecrated must lower ourselves because we are too high."

"We, in many important posts, must lower ourselves, most of all changing the rules that guide us," said the cardinal. "Not being any more 'number one' or making an 'upgrade' always to the better position, but realizing a fraternal church … in which, truly, the smallest, the poor, those that are thrown away, feel called, feel loved and we are with them."

Braz de Aviz was speaking Saturday at an event celebrating the Pact of the Catacombs, a symbolic agreement made among some 40 global bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council to live and work for a "church of the poor."

The pact, signed on Nov. 16, 1965 at the catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome, has had a great impact on church life in certain areas of the world but has largely disappeared from common church parlance.

The cardinal was speaking at the beginning of a day-long conference at the Pontifical Urbaniana University organized to highlight the pact's history and importance. Among other speakers at the event was also Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, a noted Spanish and Salvadoran theologian who has had his writings critiqued by the Vatican.

Braz de Aviz, who is the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the gathering that Francis has requested that the cardinals "be more like disciples of Jesus" and that he "does not want any more a group of cardinals … of a court."

"Naturally, this makes a great change in our lives," said the cardinal. "I think this is a great path that we must make, this turning back to being true fraternity."

The Brazilian said the pontiff has also indicated to the prelates that they should not depend on money, saying money should "not remain in our pockets, nor in our accounts at IOR … so that our being with the Lord may be a serene but radical and profound promise."

IOR is an acronym for the Institute for the Works of Religion, the Vatican institution commonly referred to as the Vatican bank. It has come under scrutiny many times in recent years for allegations of money laundering and other crimes.

"I am very, very happy because there is Pope Francis," said Braz de Aviz. "Because he tells us now that this mentality of the Gospel has come even to the seat of Peter -- this way of doing things like Jesus; that creates dangers, that creates instability but puts us in the right direction of the Gospel."

"We are truly grateful to all those who wanted from the Council already a church that became fraternal, [with] places for all -- the poor, truly, first," said the cardinal. "We know that this path is already partly done but there is still much to do."

"But it is a very good path," he said. "I think this fact of having taken this event -- the pact of the catacombs -- bring us to hope that these reflections may always go ahead, close to the pope."

Saturday's event was cosponsored by the U.S. and Brazilian embassies to the Holy See, the pontifical university, the separate international umbrella groups of male and female religious, the Divine Word Missionaries, and the church documentary service SEDOS.

The bishops who signed the catacombs pact in 1965 committed themselves to living "according to the ordinary manner" of people around the world, without special privilege or luxury. They also pledged to make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry.

Speaking on Saturday, St. Joseph Sr. Sally Hodgdon said the bishops' vow "is even more critical now than in the 1960s."

"During these past 50 years, our world has embraced capitalism and the dream of having power and having wealth," said Hodgdon, an American who serves as vice president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), an umbrella group for some 600,000 Catholic sisters and nuns around the world.

"As we know, the consequence of this dream is that we have now even greater masses of poor people," she said.

"Our church must continue to grow in being authentic witnesses of Gospel poverty, living with only what is necessary," said Hodgdon. "If we focus our resources, both human and other, in helping the poor have access to what they need of the earth's resources so they may develop and sustain themselves, then we are living the spirit of the pact."

Sobrino, who has focused his writings on liberation theology, used his talk to reflect on the ties between the 1965 catacombs pact and the 1968 meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia.

An important focus of both the pact and the final document from the Medellín meeting, Sobrino said, is that the bishops in both instances focused on their own lives and their own living of poverty.

"They're talking about themselves, we," said the Jesuit. "They're not talking about others."

"They understand that what they are going to do in their lives will determine whether the pact will be fruitful or not," he said. "Signing this pact is a strong change for them and a call to their conversion."

Sobrino is a former rector of El Salvador's University of Central America who lived in the same community as six Jesuits at the university who were assassinated in November 1989 by right-wing militants because of their political and theological positions during the Salvadorian Civil War. He is known for many theological books he has written on Jesus' and the church's commitment to the poor.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a notification about his work in 2007, but did not condemn or censure him. 

Speaking Saturday, Sobrino said the Latin American bishops meeting in Medellín took up the catacomb pact's call of personal obligation and realized that there were concerns that the church in their region had "allied with the rich."

The theologian pointed to the first words of the final document from the 1968 meeting, where they wrote: "The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keep the majority of our peoples in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness."

The bishops, said Sobrino, did not start with a reflection on St. Thomas Aquinas or the Second Vatican Council, but "the facts on the ground."

"Here we have the principle of reality," he said. "The reality of the church where we live and work."

"It's important that being a text written by bishops that the words that start the document ... are not religious words, nor biblical, nor dogmatic," he continued. "They are words that speak about the reality of the world."

Sobrino later suggested that Catholics globally might take up the call for personal conversion to help the poor by praying before a crucifix and asking two questions: "What have I done for Christ to be crucified?" and "What am I doing to remove him from the Cross?"

"We have to take the crosses of those who suffer more seriously," said the Jesuit.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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