Joe Gunn


January 12, 2015

Chances are that you will never have heard of this encounter. There is no document about it in English. Only one person attended from Canada. Yet, this event tells us much about the priorities of Pope Francis and the model of Church that he wants Catholics to live into.

A Toronto-based trade union activist, Judith Marshall, brought to the attention of her friends a report on the pope's participation in something called The World Meeting of Popular Movements.

Judith's account of the three-day meeting in October did not disguise her wonder that this grouping of 150 "precarious workers, migrants, landless farmers and small organic gardeners, squatters and inhabitants of slums" included 30 bishops whose ministries evidence strong accompaniment and support for movements of the poor.


"The event itself was designed to help persuade the Catholic Church to take up a radical option for the poor and an ever-stronger role in accompanying and supporting popular movement struggles," she said.

The list of delegates seemed most revealing, as a clue to this pope's plans for living out his vocation as the successor of Peter. The organizations present ranged from the Landless People's Movement in Brazil, to Ghanaians fighting land grabs by transnational mining companies, to indigenous leaders from Guatemala, to the Indignados fighting against the austerity mantra in Spain.


Delegates were not chosen from the biggest and wealthiest charities or trade unions. Rather, they were creative people with a lived experience of oppression who have become architects of their own liberation.

Imagine the Vatican hosting representatives of the South African Waste Pickers Association, the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India and the Excluded Workers Movement of Argentina!

One of the main organizers, Sergio Sanchez, is a robust man from a shantytown of Buenos Aires who transformed the lowly occupation of collecting cardboard waste into a new social movement, the Argentinian Confederation of Recyclers. Apparently, then-Archbishop Bergoglio had been involved with these mainly undocumented migrants since 2006, saying Mass and baptizing their children, while affirming their dignity.

How awesome is it that the impoverished who scratch out an existence by picking through garbage or developing a black market in used cardboard then organized themselves into autonomous social movements with co-ops and shared social security systems – and were then invited to share their knowledge and vision of the future with the Holy See!


The three themes of the meeting were Terra, Labor, Domus – land, work and housing. Judith said several presentations focused on the power of transnational corporations in driving the current global system, creating "sacrifice zones" rather than defending the livelihood, rights, resources and dignity of citizens.

Her own input to the discussion focused on the experiences of the International Network of People Affected by Vale (the Brazilian mining conglomerate which operates in Sudbury, Thompson and worldwide.)

In Judith's world, "Most of us do not readily turn to an apostolic exhortation from the reigning pope for pungent social criticism."

Yet Francis amazed her when he refused to mince words: "This meeting of popular movements gives a signal, a very significant signal. You came here to attest before God, before the Church and before society a reality that many times is passed over in silence.

"The poor do not just suffer injustices. They also fight back against them. They are not waiting with arms crossed for help from NGOs, for assistentialist plans or solutions that never arrive, or if they arrive, come in a manner that leads towards anesthetizing or domesticating the poor."


"They want to be the protagonists. They are organizing themselves, studying, working, demanding and above all practising that very special solidarity that exists among those who suffer."

The Christmas message of my own diocese defined the "challenge of our time" as the "crisis of the family." This real crisis is defined as disrespect for the traditional Christian conception of the family, marriage and human sexuality.

Yet, Francis' exhortation of November 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, asked Catholics to focus on mercy for the poor and the problem of "an economy of exclusion." At the October meeting of popular movements he ramped up his concern – for what he now calls the "discarded" of society.

Let's take note: new and stimulating priorities are emerging – within popular movements for justice, and within our Church.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)