But Francis isn’t the first to have used the phrase “a poor church of the poor.” It’s also been employed in a positive fashion by figures ranging from the father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, to critics of Marxist-versions of the same theology. In a 2011 meeting with German Catholic lay associations, for instance, Benedict XVI challenged the very wealthy—and notoriously bureaucratized—German Church to embrace poverty. By this, Benedict meant the Church detaching itself from “worldliness” in order to achieve “liberation from material and political burdens and privileges,” thereby breaking free of the institutional-maintenance mindset that plagues contemporary German Catholicism and opening itself “in a truly Christian way to the whole world.”
Going back in time, it was another pope, Blessed John XXIII, who brought the term “the church of the poor” to prominence. But as far as unpacking its meaning is concerned, perhaps the first to do so was one of the twentieth-century’s best Catholic theologians, the Jesuit Jean Daniélou (1905-1974). Understanding how important the expression would be after Vatican II, Daniélou devoted a chapter in his 1965 book, L’Oraison, problème politique (Prayer as a Political Problem), to clarifying the meaning of “l’église des pauvres.”
Daniélou brought unique perspectives and experiences to this question. The son of a politician from an anti-clerical family (who wasn’t baptized until his twenties) and an aristocratic mother (a formidable Catholic intellectual in her own right), Daniélou was famed for his independence of thought. When many French Catholics opted for Marshal Pétain and Vichy in 1940, for example, Daniélou chose Charles de Gaulle and Free France. Viewed with suspicion before Vatican II, Daniélou served as a peritus at the 21st ecumenical council because of his contribution to reviving patristic studies.