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.
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