Over the last week in Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, Pope Francis celebrated Masses with almost 1.5 million people in total. Most of the people at those Masses were poor, and in Madagascar, many people spent the night sleeping outside in the field where Mass was celebrated in order to be present.
Throughout this papal visit to Africa, the universal church was invited to see what a “poor church for the poor” looks like. One striking example was Akamasoa, a cooperative project outside the capital of Madagascar through which the local people have built more than 3,000 brick homes, along with schools and clinics, in what was formerly a garbage dump. In his remarks there, Francis described Akamasoa as “an expression of God’s presence in the midst of his people who are poor.”
That is what happened on the ground in Africa. But for much of the church in the rest of the world, it has been overshadowed by what happened on the plane. On the flight to Africa, Pope Francis described himself as “honored” by some attacks on him during an informal conversation with a French journalist who had written a book about American opposition to Francis. In the press conference on the return flight to Rome, asked about whether these attacks could lead to schism, Francis said, “There is always schismatic action in the church” but that it comes from “an elitist state, from ideology detached from doctrine” and from detachment “from the people of God, from the faith of the people.”
Those words on the plane make for striking headlines and lead to plenty of arguments about how Francis has responded to those who have criticized and attacked him. But despite the sometimes obsessive attention given to ecclesial factionalism and infighting, on the ground, among the people of God, something far more hopeful was going on. The Gospel was preached and good news was announced to those who are poor. Let’s keep our attention there.