The world meeting of grassroots movements ‘is a sign, a great sign’, Pope Francis declared when receiving their representatives in the Vatican on 28 October 2014. What do the expressions ‘popular or grassroots movements’ mean? Where did the idea of inviting them to the Vatican come from, and how did the meeting unfold? But most of all: what does this sign tell us about the direction that Pope Francis is proposing for the Church and the world? Michael Czerny SJ of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Paolo Foglizzo of Aggiornamenti Sociali evaluate the importance and impact of a ground-breaking meeting.
A basket of produce, a scale-model of a slum-dweller’s house, a nearly life-size replica of a waste-picker’s cart – these are the offerings brought up to the altar in St Peter’s Basilica during a morning Mass on the second day of the World Meeting of Popular Movements (WMPM). Each gift refers to a key word in the meeting’s title: Terra, Domus, Labor – ‘land, housing, work’ – in the official Latin version; or Tierra, Techo, Trabajo, the three T’s in Spanish, which Pope Francis used in his address to the participants.
The WMPM took place in Rome (partly at the Vatican, partly at the Salesian Congress Centre) from 27-29 October 2014. It brought together representatives of approximately 100 grassroots movements and organisations from all over the world, along with some 30 bishops and other church representatives and about 20 staff-members of various church groups and NGOs. This was a total novelty, as Cardinal Turkson – President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP), one of the co-organisers – underlined at the introductory press conference: ‘For the first time a Pope invites leaders of social movements for a meeting.’[i]As the Brazilian theologian Frei Betto observed: ‘True to his option for the poor, Francis wants to hear from those who represent them, thus significantly modifying the characteristics of the interlocutors of the Catholic Church.’[ii]
But this is not new to Pope Francis and his life story. In his former role as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, every September he celebrated an open-air Eucharist with the intention: ‘For a homeland where none are enslaved or excluded’. Each group taking part – waste pickers or cartoneros,[iii] slum dwellers, sweatshop workers and victims of trafficking – was invited to bring up an offering as a symbol of their lot and sufferings, and to explain the gift by recounting their ongoing efforts and naming the necessary social changes.[iv] Sergio Sánchez, a cartonero and a leader of the Movement of Excluded Workers (Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos, MTE), remembers one of the many signs of Cardinal Bergoglio’s closeness to the world of the marginalised: ‘He was the only one always at our side when the struggle got toughest, and he took up the battle against various forms of slavery to which we workers were subjected.’[v] In 2013, Sergio Sánchez was invited to Rome as a front row participant at the Inaugural Mass of the Pontificate. By express wish of Pope Francis, the poor ‘had a reserved place among the powerful of this earth. Indeed, they were even closer to the altar.’[vi]
The World Meeting of Popular Movements therefore has a very special meaning. It helps to lay out the priorities of the pontificate of Pope Francis. And above all, it illustrates how he wants the Church to fulfil its mission in the world. What follows will recount the components, origins, methods and topics of the WMPM, in order better to grasp its real historical and ecclesiological importance.
1. The participants: grassroots movements
It would be impossible here to catalogue fully the participants, or to detail all that the initiative means by ‘popular’, ‘grassroots’ or ‘social’ movements. The following list of occupations or groups provides an overview of the organisations and movements invited to the meeting:[vii]
· landless peasant farmers and smallholders, sharecroppers, day labourers and seasonal farm workers, subsistence fishermen, etc. (Terra or Land);
· slum or street dwellers, rural communities, squatters, occupiers of abandoned housing and invaders in new settlements, etc. (Domus or Housing);
· day labourers and domestic help, junk dealers, waste pickers, urban recyclers, street vendors and vendors on public transport or at traffic lights, sidewalk artisans, rickshaw drivers and bicycle delivery, ‘watch your car’ or windscreen washers or parking-space managers, workers who have recuperated and rehabilitated abandoned or bankrupt businesses or factories, etc. (Labor or Work).
The expression ‘social movements’ is rather general. In Latin-American Spanish, the meeting was called ‘Encuentro Global de Movimientos Populares’, and this gave rise to the English title ‘Global Meeting of Popular Movements’. But as ‘popular’ can have ideological overtones depending on the historical, cultural and political context, ‘grassroots’ seems a good alternative. No one term does full justice to the amazing galaxy of initiatives involved.
A related expression is ‘informal economy’ or ‘informal sector’. This refers, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to goods or services produced by workers and economic units that, largely or totally lacking formal legal coverage, are therefore ‘informal’. There can be different reasons for this: the activities may be taking place outside the scope of existing legislation; the relevant laws are not applied or enforced; or the laws themselves – inappropriate, burdensome, or excessively costly – discourage compliance.[viii]
Those who operate economic activities at the grassroots may also use the expression ‘popular economy’. By this is meant:
“…all the economic activities, productive units and subsistence trades which the most impoverished sectors of the working class develop for themselves in the face of the insufficient supply of salaried jobs in the official economy. What is typical of them all is that the ‘means of work’ (tools, machines, supplies, and commercial, production or office space) have come within their reach either because others have discarded such means or because poor people have successfully struggled to appropriate them.[ix]”
Thus the characteristic of ‘informality’, with its consequent precariousness, insecurity, lack of protection and deprivation of rights, is not a matter of choice or preference; instead, it proves to be the only available strategy for survival.[x] The formal sector or conventional economy being closed, those involved in such activities experience exclusion and informality.
The workings of the informal, grassroots or popular economy are largely parallel to (and have minimal contact with) those of the national and international economy as usually understood. For this reason, all these activities (and people!) remain substantially absent from official statistics. ‘To encounter them, you have to leave the “centre” of the economic system and go towards its periphery.’[xi] This is exactly the direction in which Pope Francis has been urging the Church to move since the beginning of his ministry.[xii] Now to invite to the Vatican the organisations of poor and excluded workers – rather than the charities and development NGOs that work for and with them, and moreover without regard for their confessional affiliation[xiii] – this makes the WMPM truly novel. For almost always and in nearly every context, the centre dominates the periphery. By inviting the periphery to the centre, the WMPM set in motion a contrary dynamic, a mirror-image movement from the outskirts towards the middle. This constitutes a profound reconfiguration of the centre-periphery relationship.
A final clarification is needed. The deficits we have catalogued – precariousness, informality, exclusion and marginalisation, along with statistical invisibility, irrelevance or non-existence when it comes to official accounting – could leave one with the impression that all these economic activities are merely incidental or residual, too negligible or trifling to be worth taking into account. This would be an enormous mistake. According to the ILO again, ‘the informal economy comprises half to three-quarters of all non-agricultural employment in developing countries.’[xiv] If we include informal agriculture (the sorts of activities called Terra above) along with the increasing proportion of the informal sector in developed countries, we realise that, out of the seven billion inhabitants of the planet, at least three billion are involved, the world’s poorest. Then there is a ‘global middle class’ of another three billion people (although with increasing risk of downward mobility), and finally a privileged global elite of about one billion people who control the bulk of the wealth and who consume the bulk of resources.
To invite representatives of popular organisations and grassroots movements to the Vatican therefore focuses the Church’s attention (and broader world attention too) on those masses who today represent almost half of the world’s population. The Vatican invited them to gather, not only to listen but to speak with and engage one another. In addition, the Church provides an open space, also on a global scale, for them to organise themselves. Such openness must be at the heart of any attempt to promote authentic democracy, as Pope Francis himself underlined in his address to the meeting, speaking of ‘a torrent of moral energy that springs from including the excluded in the building of a common destiny.’
2. Planning and objectives of the World Meeting
The WMPM follows a series of initiatives at the Vatican level which take up the exhortation of Pope Francis to ‘go out’ towards the peripheries. The first was the seminar ‘The Emergency of the Socially Excluded’ on 5 December 2013, co-sponsored by the PCJP, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and LUMSA University.[xv] In his opening remarks, Cardinal Turkson asked the participants how ‘may the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, and the Church of Christ he shepherds, encounter the excluded, and lead and encourage those of other faiths, and many others of good will, to do likewise?’[xvi]
Speaking at this seminar was the Argentine lawyer Juan Grabois, co-founder of the MTE and of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers (CTEP), with whom Cardinal Bergoglio had collaborated in support of the cartoneros and recyclers of Buenos Aires, especially with a view to their gaining legal recognition; and participating as an observer was João Pedro Stédile, leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST). Thanks to the contacts of Grabois and Stédile with the PCJP, Pope Francis conveyed his own desire for a meeting of representatives of the excluded, and so a working group was formed to plan and prepare it.[xvii]
The planning group identified the objectives of the WMPM as follows:
· to give voice to those who normally fail to make themselves heard, offering them an opportunity to share their experiences;
· to accompany and encourage them in their daily efforts as protagonists of their own development, appreciating their indispensable contribution to the promotion of a society that upholds full respect for the human dignity of all its members;
· to examine the models of economic development critically, on the basis of the participants’ testimony as witnesses of the harmful consequences of the current dominant model;
· to read Evangelii Gaudium together and, on this basis, to seek truly inclusive alternatives;
· to promote occasions for dialogue and forms of global coordination among grassroots organisations and movements;
· to favour dialogue between grassroots movements (whether or not of Christian origin) and the Church at all its levels (universal, regional and national), and so to simulate the local Churches to get involved with grassroots movements.
In late Spring 2014, invitations were sent out, while work continued on the organisation and logistics of the WMPM.
3. The course of the meeting
The dynamic of the WMPM followed the ‘see-judge-act’ methodology typical of the social teaching of the Church and enshrined by Pope St John XXIII in his 1961 encyclical Mater et magistra, § 236. And this is also how the three days of sessions were organised. Without pretending to exhaust the immense richness and variety of the exchanges, we shall try to synthesise certain key ideas, on the basis of the documentation available on the WMPM website, and the testimony of some participants, also available online.
a) The grassroots movements meet each other and take a look at the world
The first day was dedicated to facing the reality, understood as exercising ‘an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times’ (EG, § 51 quoting Blessed Pope Paul VI). The work took place in sessions dedicated to the main themes of land, housing and work, plus two cross-cutting themes of environment and peace.
The exchanges led to lists of the difficulties, sufferings and challenges which the marginalised and the oppressed experience in different parts of the world. They also allowed deep connections and similarities, beyond the variety of forms, to be identified. ‘The structural causes of inequality and exclusion were analysed, from their global systemic roots to their local expressions.… The panellists and speakers agreed that the roots of social and environmental ills should be sought in the unfair, predatory nature of the capitalist system that puts profits above the human being.’[xviii] In these words it is not difficult to hear an echo of Pope Francis speaking about ‘throw-away culture’ and the ‘idolatry of money’ (cf. EG, §§ 53-60).
At the same time, the poor, getting organised themselves, were recognised as having the capacity to resist these forces and to face these challenges:
“Countless experiences were shared about work, organisation and struggle which have enabled us to generate millions of decent occupations in the popular sector of the economy, as well as to recover millions of hectares of land for peasant agriculture, and to build, outfit, improve millions of homes and urban communities around the world and protect them from demolition. The participation and leadership of grassroots sectors in the context of high-jacked democracies, or even plutocracies, are indispensable for the changes we need.[xix]”
b) Pondering the real situation: the contribution of Pope Francis
On the second day, after the Eucharistic celebration in St Peter’s Basilica mentioned at the beginning, the participants gathered in the Old Synod Hall for their meeting with Pope Francis, an ‘unforgettable historical moment’ in the words of the Final Declaration, § 12.
With great warmth and sympathy, Pope Francis entered into the dynamic of the meeting, offering his own reading and interpretation[xx] of the global reality. In many points his assessment coincided with what the participants had expressed the previous day. In the eyes of the Pope, the world is indeed marked by profound injustices that provoke great sufferings: uprooting of peasants, confiscation or even grabbing of land, insecure access to water, hunger at the same time as the discarding of food, families without housing, unemployed youth, informal workers deprived of their rights. Francis does not hesitate to judge these as ‘evils’, using the precise moral term. Such evils ‘are not inevitable. They are the result of an underlying social choice in favour of an economic system that puts profit above people.’ They are the effect of ‘a throw-away culture at work that considers humanity in itself, human beings, as a consumer good, which can be used and then thrown away.’[xxi]
But then the Pope turns his attention to another element: ‘The poor not only suffer injustice, they also struggle against it!’ Rather than passively waiting for a solution from on high, ‘you want to be protagonists. You get organised, study, work, issue demands and, above all, practise that very special solidarity that exists among those who suffer, among the poor.’ This solidary protagonism generates innovative solutions that other viewpoints cannot conceive of or foresee. Such initiatives are the very soil from which grassroots movements, like those taking part in the WMPM, spring up. ‘So many of you who are excluded workers, the discards of this system, have been inventing your own work with materials that seemed devoid of further productive value… But with the craftsmanship God gave you, with your inventiveness, your solidarity, your community work, your popular economy, you have managed to succeed, you are succeeding.’
Even deeper, that solidarity grounds ‘a rich popular culture’ that pervades life on the outskirts, generating relationships amongst people and integration of society. And this is the fundamental reason why Francis keeps alerting the Church to the way of the outskirts, in order to re-learn that culture and those values ‘that have been forgotten in the rich centres.’
This solidarity assumes the role of a true and proper engine of history. ‘Solidarity, understood in its deepest sense, is a way of making history, and this is what the grassroots movements are doing.’ And this intrinsically includes the struggle to overcome the structural causes of poverty and injustice, which several times the Pope invites them to pursue: ‘This must be done with courage but also with intelligence, with tenacity but without fanaticism, with passion yet without violence. And all of us together, addressing the conflicts without getting trapped in them, always seeking to resolve the tensions in order to reach a higher plane of unity, of peace and of justice.’
The method essential to this struggle is the culture of encounter, ‘where the aggregate does not wipe out the particularities.’ The Pope graphically expresses this insight with the image of the polyhedron, ‘a geometric figure with many different facets. The polyhedron reflects the confluence of all the partialities that in it keep their originality. Nothing is dissolved, nothing is destroyed, nothing is dominated, everything is integrated’ (cf. EG, § 236). His listeners – the Pope concludes – are practising exactly that culture, having accepted the invitation to meet in order to walk together or, in ecclesial terms, ‘to do synod’.[xxii] And this is also the path towards concretising a greater global coordination amongst the ‘experiences of solidarity which grow up from below’ – precisely one of the objectives of the WMPM.
After lunch in the Vatican staff cafeteria, the afternoon opened with several speakers applying the social teaching of the Catholic Church, especially as expressed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, to the themes of the WMPM, and it concluded with the intervention of Evo Morales. He was invited not as President of Bolivia (recently re-elected for the third time with 60% of the vote) but as historic leader of the movement of the cocaleros (native peasants who uphold the right to cultivate coca, not for drug traffic but as part of their own culture) and as president of CONALCAM (the national Bolivian coordination of grassroots movements for social change). His intervention showed how it is possible to implement concrete policies in favour of the poorest, capable of opening up the question of the management of resources and common goods (like gas, oil and water) and of obtaining tangible results both in the rate of growth and in the reduction of poverty. In his speech, Morales attributed the success of his programme of government – describing it as radically alternative to neoliberal capitalism and therefore internationally harassed – to the option of practising politics as service.
c) The way ahead
The third day was dedicated to the way ahead. The focus was on identifying actions and commitments to coordinate the grassroots movements and their collaboration with the Church at the global level. The Final Declaration was drafted, and approved by all.
This Declaration had to take into account the large number and above all the enormous diversity of participants. The shared undertaking from now on is to carry on the struggle in which each group is involved and maintain a critical vigilance over what happens, with strength renewed by the awareness of not being alone and by the enthusiasm which the encounter with Pope Francis generated. To this, one can add a deeper awareness of the importance of networking and of a closer relationship between the Church and the grassroots movements.
Br Albert Parise, an Italian Comboni missionary in Kenya who attended the WMPM, wrote: ‘The outcome of the meeting is not a blueprint, a concerted, strategic plan of action of the various popular movements, but rather an open journey that will always require constant listening, dialogue, discernment, collaboration and collective action, as we all seek to attain our shared, full humanity.’[xxiii]
4. A first assessment: local and global prospects
The WMPM was undoubtedly an historical event, a first of its kind, an opportunity to plant new seeds. They need time to germinate and grow, and then some real evaluation will be possible. Here, we can attempt a preliminary assessment and appreciation.
The WMPM provided the poor with an opportunity to display their forms of initiative, participation and protagonism on a global stage. For they were invited to and made welcome in a place which quintessentially symbolises global authority and leadership, and where customarily it is political and religious leaders who are received. At the same time, the WMPM has shown how the Church can facilitate such encounter by making the necessary resources and infrastructure available.
In this sense, the WMPM has validated the grassroots movements as interlocutors of the Church at the institutional level, with the hope that this dialogue will also begin with local ecclesial communities, helping them to set out towards the outskirts where they can encounter the value of solidarity, so fundamental for their life. Conversely, it has validated the Church as an interlocutor of the popular movements, which left with a renewed hope of finding in her an ally capable of listening to them and supporting them even at the institutional level, rather than only in the inspiration and the accompaniment which many of them acknowledged receiving in the field from individual church figures. Finally, we can anticipate that the relationship established between these movements and the Church will also be noticed more broadly in the world, with positive repercussions on all sides.
An example shows the kind of dynamics which the WMPM set in motion. The two delegates from Malawi – Most Rev. Montfort Stima, Bishop of Mangochi, and Mwanda Wiliki Chiwambala of the Malawi Union for Informal Sector (MUFIS)[xxiv] – had never met before. Worse, when the bishops’ conference was approached for the necessary letter of support for visa purposes, they said they had never heard of MUFIS. Now the WMPM gave the two the opportunity to meet and become acquainted. As a result they agreed, once back home, that the interchange should continue. From many points of view, the most important process now is the one which takes place at the local and regional levels. At the same time, two other objectives are extremely important: to establish on-going coordination amongst the organisations of the excluded and marginalised; and to set up a platform to make it feasible for popular organisations to contact their local Church leadership, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Pope Francis.
From a broader point of view, the WMPM also constitutes a crucial junction for highlighting the relationship of the Church with the world which Pope Francis has in mind, on the basis of the fact that ‘love for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel,’ as he recalled during his address. A few days later, he wrote to the Australian Prime Minister as host and organiser of the G20 in Brisbane (15-16 November 2014). In that letter he reminded the world’s leaders that ‘there are far too many men and women suffering from severe malnutrition, a rise in the number of the unemployed, an extremely high percentage of young people without work and an increase in social exclusion.... Responsibility for the poor and the marginalised must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.’ At the same time he underlined how important it was for disagreements among the G20 Members not to impede a genuine dialogue. Instead, he invited them to do more: ‘The whole world expects from the G20 an ever broader agreement.’ In other words, he pressed the G20, too, for a greater effort to work together and ‘do synod,’ to make their way together.
A few weeks later, Pope Francis ‘did synod’ again. On 2 December in the Vatican, he hosted leaders of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches and of the world’s great religions (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim) for the signing of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery.[xxv] ‘Modern slavery – in the form of human trafficking, forced labour, prostitution or the trafficking of organs – is a crime against humanity. Its victims are from every walk of life, but most are found among the poorest and the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.’[xxvi]
Whether addressing religious leaders, grassroots movements, or Heads of State or Government of the most powerful countries, Pope Francis is giving the same message: put the poorest at the centre and walk together. The Catholic Church is geographically, socially and pastorally present throughout the world. This message therefore underscores a unique opportunity for the Church to help persons and groups of different cultures, religions, classes and social roles to encounter one another. It is also to face head-on the conflict which criss-crosses our world, ‘to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process’ (EG, § 227). In this, the Church will rediscover and realise a new facet of the universality which forms part of its catholic identity.
The WMPM’s Environment Group addresses Pope Francis:
“We are very diverse people, communities and organizations. We represent different cultures, worldviews, kinds of work, political perspectives and religious convictions. All the while, our dreams unite us. So do our efforts to be men and women of solidarity – in order to continue to exist as people of African and indigenous descent, peasant farmers, livestock breeders, seasonal farmworkers, shepherds, fishermen – in order to continue to exist as both rural and urban inhabitants and producers. We want to continue feeding humanity and, with our economies of solidarity, sustaining the life of all. And we wish that Mother Earth would be taken care of, from whom we all get our sustenance. Today a tiny minority is devastating the planet, with a model of production and consumption which values profit more than life and is devastating the planet and the forms of life and the culture which support it. The climate change which that model has brought about and that minority are putting at risk the Earth and all living beings, including humans.[xxvii]”
(Michael Czerny SJ, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; and Paolo Foglizzo, Editorial Team, Aggiornamenti Sociali, Milan. This article was published originally in Italian in Aggiornamenti Sociali in January 2015 under the title ‘La forza degli esclusi: L’Incontro mondiale dei movimenti popolari in Vaticano’. English version edited by Robert Czerny)
[ii] Frei Betto, Papa muda interlocutores da Igreja, 25 September 2014, http://oglobo.globo.com/sociedade/papa-muda-interlocutores-da-igreja-14039247.
[iii] In Argentina, the term cartoneros (literally: cardboarders) means those who live by gathering refuse, sorting it for recyclables and selling them – e.g., plastic to the multinational Danone for its yogurt pots.
[iv] Grabois, J., ‘Precariedad laboral, exclusión social y economía popular’, Joint Workshop on Sustainable Humanity and Sustainable Nature - Our Responsibility, Casina Pio IV, 2-6 May 2014, www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/es41/es41-grabois.pdf.
[vi] ‘I poveri accanto ai potenti. Una presenza voluta dal Papa’, in L’Osservatore Romano, 20 March 2013, www.osservatoreromano.va/it/news/i-poveri-accanto-ai-potenti.
[viii] Cf. ILO on the informal economy:http://www.ilo.org/inform/online-information-resources/research-guides/informal-economy/lang--en/index.htm
[x] Cf. Deneulin, S. and Murga, M., The Power of Organizing: The Story of the Confederation of the Popular Economy Workers to Recover Dignified Work, CTEP, Buenos Aires 2014. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/42293/.
[xii] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (henceforth EG), § 20, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.
[xiii] According to an Italian delegate at the meeting, less than half of the participants were Catholic, while the others belonged to other denominations, other religions, or none at all.
[xiv] ILO, Informal economy, www.ilo.org/global/topics/employment-promotion/informal-economy/lang--en/index.htm.
[xv] Emergenza esclusi, The Emergency of the Socially Excluded, www.casinapioiv.va/content/accademia/it/events/2013/excluded.html. (LUMSA’s full title is the Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta.)
[xvi] Turkson, P. K. A., ‘Welcome address’, The Emergency of the Socially Excluded, Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Vatican City 2013, www.casinapioiv.va/content/accademia/it/publications/scriptavaria/excluded.html.
[xvii] The working group was made up of the PCJP, the Pontifical Academies of Sciences, MTE, CTEP and MST, with the support of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a global network of the urban poor present in 33 countries, and of the World Movement of Christian Workers. Cf. Juan Grabois, Presentation, Press Conference presenting the World Meeting of Popular Movements, 24 October 2014 http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2014/10/24/0790/01669.html.
[xix] Ibid. § 9.
[xx] Pope Francis uses the vocabulary of spiritual discernment, as found in the spiritual tradition of St Ignatius Loyola, and applies it in the social field: ‘choosing movements of the spirit of good and rejecting those of the spirit of evil’ (EG, § 51).
[xxii] Etymologically, ‘synod means literally “to walk together, to share a path or road, to make one’s way together”’ Pope Francis explained, making reference to the Old Synod Hall in which the meeting was taking place.
[xxiii] Parise, A., A summary of the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome by a participant, http://segretariato-evangelizzazione-mccj.over-blog.com/search/movimenti.