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Meghan J. ClarkJanuary 19, 2023
Theologians Meghan Clark (far left) and Stan Chu Ilo (front center) meet with the women of Mujer Obrera in El Paso, Tex. (Photo by Dylan Corbett, Executive Director of the Hope Border Institute).

In a speech to his fellow cardinals before the conclave that elected him pope, Jorge Mario Bergolio implored, “The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” In one of his most famous phrases as pope, he called for the church to be “as a field hospital after battle.”

Pope Francis: “It is necessary for knowledge to become practice through listening to and receiving the least, the frail and those regarded as rejects by society.”

Welcoming people isn’t just about “keeping the doors open,” he urged. We need to “be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step out of itself and go to those who do not attend mass, to those who have quit, or are indifferent” because “we need to proclaim the gospel on every street corner.”

At the United Nations in 2015, Francis issued a further challenge: In seeking to address poverty and injustice, we must remember our goal is enabling persons to become “dignified agents of their own destiny,” not just numbers on a spreadsheet. In emphasizing both dignity and agency, Francis continually reminds us that going to the existential peripheries is about building community of mutuality and justice. It is not that those who are marginalized need our help, as if we are coming to save them. We promote and protect the dignity of those who are excluded by recognizing their own agency and ability to participate or contribute to the wider community.

If this vision of going out to the peripheries began to make some anxious, Francis gently reminded us that “to go out of ourselves and join others is healthy for us.” The invitation and imperative to go out to the peripheries and embrace a wider vision of marginalization and exclusion captured by existential peripheries is woven throughout this pope’s teaching and ministry. In 2021, Pope Francis specifically called for moral theology to do theology from and with those on the peripheries, for “[i]t is necessary for knowledge to become practice through listening to and receiving the least, the frail and those regarded as rejects by society.”

Responding to this urgent call from Pope Francis, and the more recent call to embody a more synodal church, in 2021 the Vatican launched a unique global theology project. Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheriesis a research project of the Migrant and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Six regional working groups, consisting of teams of theologians and collaborators, carried out listening exercises with a mixture of individuals and groups on the “existential peripheries” of power in society and in the church.

As assistant coordinator for the North American Working Group, I was privileged to serve on a team of ten theologians and consultants seeking to listen to our neighbors’ stories.

As assistant coordinator for the North American Working Group, I was privileged to serve on a team of ten theologians and consultants seeking to listen to our neighbors’ stories. We were sent out as theologians to lift up the experience of faith, joy, pain and injustice by those living on the margins. While our work was not comprehensive nor meant to capture everyone, it was important to me that we seek out those whom Pope Francis’s own ministry has sought to spotlight.

Navigating this was simple in the New York City area, where I drove to meet with people in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey. Most listening sessions were a couple of hours, some involved sharing meals or worship. With colleagues in New York, Chicago, Toronto and San Diego, the group sought to identify who would conduct listening sessions with different groups experiencing marginalization in the church or society.

In North America, however, it was important to have listening sessions in the border region. Thanks to the simultaneous translation and logistical coordination of Dylan Corbett and HOPE Border Institute, I was also able to conduct listening sessions with regional coordinator Stan Chu Ilo in El Paso and Juarez. And though the locations differed, all four places revealed a deep faith experience of accompaniment by God on the part of those we interviewed.

Building community that rejects throwaway culture

“No one is useless and no one is expendable,” Francis wrote in “Fratelli Tutti,” and thus we must find “ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centers of power where weighty decisions are made.” I heard echoes of the pope’s words in El Paso when we met with Carlos, a Catholic farmworker organizer, who explained, “what migration represents today is an act of resistance of people who refuse to disappear, refuse to be what Pope Francis calls the disposable created by this system.”

In his TED Talk in 2017, the Holy Father said that “we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.” This deep commitment to community undergirds his call to go to the existential peripheriesto listen, learn, and build up the common good. In “Fratelli Tutti,” he uses the parable of the good Samaritan to imagine what this can look like. For Francis,“The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”

In El Paso, I visited the kind of inclusive communities of which the pope dreams with women from Mujer Obrera, an independent organization “dedicated to creating communities defined by women.” Their community began as a solidarity movement among garment workers in 1981 and today facilitates advocacy and social enterprises. Sharing lunch and listening, the women described their mission as “creating a community against destruction.” They lamented that they “do not know how you can be a person of faith and not care about protecting children and the environment.”

At the peripheries one does not simply find poverty or deprivation, one finds persons with dignity who are gathering up the rejected and fighting to make the world better for everyone.

Josefa, a recycler in Brooklyn, witnesses to building up a similar kind of community every day. As an example of active resistance to the throwaway culture, she shared, “We recyclers…we help to clean up the planet a little bit,” because “if we did not exist, who would collect the garbage from the streets?” The recyclers at Sure We Can elected Josefa to represent them to the Global Alliance of Wastepickers organizing to get recognition from the International Labour Organization.

In New York and around the world, waste pickers and recyclers experience exclusion, derision and pity from those around them. Yet, Josefa lives and works with dignity at a job that contributes to the common good. As Francis noted in “Querida Amazonia,” “Dialogue must not only favor the preferential option on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the excluded, but also respect them as having a leading role to play.” At the peripheries one does not simply find poverty or deprivation, one finds persons with dignity who are gathering up the rejected and fighting to make the world better for everyone.

A culture of faith rooted in forgiveness

An immigrant from Mexico to New York, Josefa is a woman of deep faith but does not feel like she has a place in the parishes around her. “God never discriminated against anyone…never pushed aside anyone who wanted to follow him,” she shared when we met at Sure We Can. “And so I say, why would one do that if God does not?” In conversation with theologian John Gonzales and I, she talked about the woman who dumped a bucket of water on her from the roof as she collected cans. Josefa prays for that woman, she shared. “To the people who have marginalized us, I tell Him to forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”

As a woman of faith, I learned a lot about the spiritual depths of forgiveness from those I interviewed. A Latina single mother, teacher, and member in a Catholic charismatic community who works with young people as a parish educator, Ana described a personal encounter with God in which she said, “God wanted me healed and to see myself as what I was meant to be—a child of God with restored dignity, coherent in word, action, thought and being.” Speaking after dinner in her home, Ana noted that the locus of exclusion and inclusion is sometimes one’s own faith, family, and community. “The simplicity of embracing the other with any needs the other has tends to be forgotten,” she noted.

Throughout my interviews, though I met those who felt abandoned by their fellow Christians or excluded by the Catholic Church, I encountered no one who felt abandoned by God. “When you have faith, anything is possible,” noted a young migrant mother from Guatemala. In Ciudad Juarez, I met migrant women from many places who all euphemistically referred to “difficulties” when mentioning the ubiquitous violence experienced on their journey. And yet I heard some version of the same assertion several times: “God hasn’t abandoned us because we are here.”

Though I met those who felt abandoned by their fellow Christians or excluded by the Catholic Church, I encountered no one who felt abandoned by God.

Whether migrants trying to get to the United States to apply for asylum, women in marginalized communities, families affected by gang violence or L.G.B.T. Catholics, all the persons I met were actively resisting systems of exclusion. Their strength came from an absolute conviction that God accompanies them on their journeys—even when others do not. “I see God putting good people in our path,” said a migrant woman from Ciudad Juarez.

InFratelli Tutti,” Francis proclaims“we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth…in order to accompany life, to sustain hope … to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation.” This requires learning to accompany as God accompanies, without exclusion.

This also includes those excluded by the church itself, such as L.G.B.T. Catholics. The existential peripheries are within the church itself as well as in society. Christine is a transgender Catholic whose faith centers around the sacraments and a deep commitment to the dignity of all persons, from the unborn and the elderly to our brothers and sisters in the L.G.B.T. community. We met in a conference room at a parish with an active L.G.B.T. community in New Jersey. “All that we ask,” noted Christine, “is that we are included in our faith, in our parish communities and active in those communities just like everyone else.” Sometimes going out to the existential peripheries is simply going over to the next pew.

Focusing on the lived experience and faith of people living on the margins of power is not radical or unique. Pastoral and practical theologians, like our team member and fellow theologian Jennifer Owens-Jofré, have long engaged in this work. The methodological approach also has a long history in Latin America. However, what is unique and important about this project is the way in which it was globalized and systematized with the Migrant & Refugee Section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development.

From my perspective, this project, and the call from Pope Francis to go out to the peripheries, is not about giving voice to the voiceless. It is about recognizing, in prayerful humility, that our brothers and sisters on “the existential peripheries” are already speaking, witnessing to God in a world of injustice.

Can we quiet ourselves long enough to hear their stories? And once we do, can we become the welcoming and inclusive church required to accompany our neighbors as God accompanies them?

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