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JAMES BEHRENS: The poor give us insight into the church’s purpose

James Behrens

James Behrens

In the brief time since he was elected, Pope Francis has startled the world by the humble sincerity of his behavior and the directness of his observations. Hardly a day goes by that the media does not pick up on the slow but sure change that he is bringing about.

The pope learns from the poor. He has lived with them, dined with them, held them, pondered them. And he has asked us to do the same. It is the poor who offer the deepest insight to the church’s quest for identity and purpose.

There is the story in Luke’s gospel about the 10 lepers who were cured by Jesus. The passage brings to mind the need for gratitude. Of the 10 lepers healed by Jesus, only one comes back to thank him. Jesus wonders about the whereabouts of the other nine. And so do we.

Gratitude seems to come easy to us. We set aside a special day for it, Thanksgiving, and most of us are taught from the time we are very young to thank God for who we are and what we have. That is good.

A good upbringing itself is, I suppose, something for which to be thankful. Maybe that explains in part why many of us find it thoughtless, even rude, that a gift given is taken without thanks.

Yet there are many who lack the refinements offered by being raised well. They find it hard to express gratitude because they have been given so little in life.

Perhaps the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks did so not out of thoughtlessness. Maybe they just did not know how to give thanks. It was not in their vocabulary, their upbringing. Jesus does not condemn them. He simply asks where they were.

It seems that the pope has gone about his life finding out where they went, as the leprous live on in the lives of the poor. The pope has spent his life listening to them, comforting them. It does not seem that he expects words of thanks from any of them.

The roads that lead to the poor are not easy to travel. Living and working with the poor, the deeply wounded in our midst, is a rude shift from the certainties afforded by our comforts, our theologies, our positions of privilege. The poor are not as refined or as nice as we would prefer them to be. They cause problems.

In speaking to a gathering during his recent visit to Assisi, Pope Francis had a few off the cuff comments about following Jesus on this way to poverty.

“Jesus creates problems,” he said. “You can’t know Jesus without having problems, and I would venture to say: ‘If you want to have problems, go out on the road to know Jesus. You won’t have one, you’ll have many.’”

The pope’s words strike me as so different from the way I was raised to think about life and religion. I was taught that religion would offer comfort and an answer to life’s problems. It never occurred to me that Jesus was a problem. Even more removed was the possibility that being involved with Him would create problems.

A good part of my early upbringing was turned upside down. Religion removes one from the comfort zone to the troublesome zone. Religion at its best will afflict us by stripping us of all that we thought were the right and good things.

But it is the way we learn to walk on a different road, the one trodden by the poor, and by nine lepers who hopefully are on their way to a better life, a life of learning gratitude for the road they walk and the man they met along the way. The same man who was biding his time, waiting for them to learn the meaning of gratitude, another gift they will find on the new road.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.