But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind (Luke, 14:13). In Rome the welfare queens don’t drive pink Cadillacs and buy Twinkies with food stamps. Instead, the homeless get private guided tours of the Sistine Chapel and a free dinner at the Vatican’s museum restaurant. This is the Catholic Church’s latest effort to implement Pope Francis’s initiative to reach out to the poor; it follows earlier directives to distribute sleeping bags, build showers, and provide free haircuts and shaves.
To those who think only in economic terms, these may seem inadequate gestures, and they certainly will do little to alleviate the structural burdens faced by the city’s poor. Perhaps the pope is only an enabler, but it’s refreshing to see the homeless treated as something other than a problem to be solved – or, more likely, shunted out of sight so the city can continue the business of gentrifying its tax base. In our own politics of poverty, it’s hard to imagine anyone suggesting that poor people might like to see ageless works of art or enjoy a walk through the papal gardens. And so we dehumanize them, the better not to see them.
This pope named himself after Francis of Assisi, known as Il Poverello (“Poor Little Man”), who is the patron saint of both Italy and ecology, but whose commitment to poverty and the simple life so challenged his own church's hierarchy that no previous pope had dared to take his name.