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Champion of the Poor

Two global Christian communities – Anglicans and Catholics – are welcoming new leaders. What Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis have in common, besides the timing of their inaugurations, is that both are assuming the leadership of churches that are disproportionately located in poorer parts of the world.

But how can they lead their churches to become churches for the poor? One way will be a refusal to focus on internal management issues at the expense of mission – the social and spiritual outreach of churches into their communities and of Christians in their daily work that is grounded in God's love for all that God has made.

For inspiration, Pope Francis can look to Francis of Assisi, from whom he takes his name; and to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of his Jesuit order. Both forsook internal controversies to focus unrelentingly on mission. For Francis, this even meant expressing God's love towards wild and dangerous animals. Archbishop Justin may find inspiration in someone equally familiar with such animals, whose image became almost an icon for mission: the medic and explorer David Livingstone, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this week.

Livingstone's passion for the poor drove his vision for 'commerce and Christianity'. This combination, he felt, would help secure human flourishing in what was widely regarded as a 'Dark Continent' fit only for exploitation. He argued that legitimate trade, founded on biblical principles of integrity, dignity and respect, provided a viable alternative to the slave trade. Indeed, his risky and strenuous expeditions can only be understood with the abolitionist underpinning of his 'commerce and Christianity' vision in mind; navigating rivers was a means to open up landlocked Africa to the kind of trade that would, quite literally, redeem.

While conclaves deliberate over Livingstone's legacy, Pope Francis emerges from the white smoke with a solid reputation for being a champion of the poor. But for him, as for Archbishop Justin, that title ultimately belongs to someone who began his ministry by declaring God's good news for the poor, and embodied that news in his life, death, and resurrection. Whatever their inspirational value, all other champions of the poor fail. This leaves the poor to say, in words from a globally-used liturgy, 'there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.' May the churches' new leaders help more of the world's people to find themselves on the winning side.

Peter Heslam


st francis expressed God's love towards wild & dangerous animals
david livingstone proposed 'commerce and Christianity' as an alternative to the slave trade