To the Margins (Andrea Riccardi) -- Review

TO THE MARGINS: Pope Francis and the Mission of the Church. By Andrea Riccardi. Translated by Dinah Livingstone. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. 184 pages.

Too often the church has been the servant to those who are powerful and wealthy. As for those who live on the margins, they are often out of sight and out of mind. That is beginning to change, but this has been the pattern since Constantine embraced the church in the fourth century. One reason that change is in the air is that religious communities no longer sit in the center of society. Religion is being pushed to the margins. It is true that the church often mistakes its marginalization for persecution, but at least in the developed West, religion no longer serves the powerful, and so it gets marginalized. This reality has led some to look around and discover that God is present and at work on the margins. One who has discerned this truth is Pope Francis, whose speech to the Conclave that elected him Pope in 2013 called for the church to move to the margins. Of course, not all his fellow cardinals have been eager to go where Francis has been pointing. Some, like Raymond Burke, who enjoyed the trappings of nobility, have found themselves facing a different kind of marginalization. Nonetheless, Pope Francis has persisted in his call for the church to tend to the margins, a vision he had undertaken while still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Many of us who are not Roman Catholic have welcomed his message, and we too have heard the call to the margins.

Andrea Riccardi is a historian and founder of the San’ Egidio Community centered in Italy, a lay community of the Catholic church devoted to peace and service, as well as prayer and evangelism. He has taken up the task of exploring Francis’ vision, not by focusing on Francis himself but on the kinds of efforts that are inspired by his vision. What he has produced here is in one sense an expression of liberation theology. By showing us what is taking place on the margins, and the ways the church has been engaged in the past and the present, he shows us the way forward. This is an attempt to bring into the open the ways in which mission is taking place in places often forgotten by churches that focus on the center. Riccardi is especially focused on the suburbs of the great cities. While we in the United States think of suburbs as the places where the middle classes have set up their lives, while the inner cities deteriorate, in many parts of the world it is the suburb that exists on the margins, while the wealthy live at the center. As he reveals, too often the church is absent from these spaces, and when efforts are undertaken to go to the margins, they are often resisted by those in power. 

Riccardi's book, which is translated from the Italian original, is comprised of four chapters, as well as an introduction that focuses on Francis' vision of the move to the margins, as well as a conclusion that reflects on the ways in which the Gospel is now present at the margins.

The first chapter explores the return to the margins. It brings to our attention the new cities that are emerging, the megalopolises and the church of the South. He notes that starting in the 19th century there was a break between the church and the margins, especially the industrialized world of the worker. As workers organized the church often stood with the powers, and that created a rift that continues to this day. From this starting point, Riccardi takes us back to the beginning, to the ancient margins of Christianity. He explores the role of the margins in Scripture in helpful ways. He reminds us of Jesus' Galilean mission, and his words about the poor, people whom Jesus identified with. While the church has at times been concerned about the margins, it also could push them away, and thus the church would become detached from the poor. He notes that some of the great leaders of the church, including Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and John Chrysostom, sought to put the marginalized back in the center of the church's life. The monastic movement took the church to the margins, which would often bring the concerns of the margins back to the center. 

The third chapter explores ways in which people have lived faithfully on the margins, telling stories of people become strangers in their own country, a Russian Church in Siberia, a nun experiencing the Nazi camps, and, interestingly enough, stories of those who are fools for Christ. This is followed in chapter four by a lengthy chapter focused on mission on the margins. Here is the heart of the story, where Francis' vision has been experienced both in the past and the present. I was especially interested in his story of the worker-priests in France, who fulfilled their vocation by becoming workers. They lived among the workers, shared their lives completely, and in doing so sought to be the Gospel. Unfortunately, though the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris supported this movement, it was shut down by Pius XII out of fear that they were moving toward Marxism. In this chapter we encounter men and women, some who are lay and some who are not, who engaged in mission. He also tells the story of the Sant' Egidio community and its work in the poor suburbs in Italy and beyond. Due to globalization and urbanization our world changing quickly, the question is, can the church respond? He notes that the mafia and gangs often provide support, but also terrorism. So where is the church? That is the message here, and worth attending to.

It took me a few pages to realize that this isn’t a book about Pope Francis, but rather of a movement inspired by him. While I am not Roman Catholic, I have long been influenced by my reading of liberation theologians, who have made the poor and the marginalized their focus. While Riccardi doesn’t engage specifically with liberation theology, there are echoes here of that movement. While there may be differences between Catholic and Protestant theology of mission, I believe there is much to learn here from Riccardi’s book that applies to Protestant ministry and mission.

The closing paragraph of the book serves as an invitation to enter the heart of the Gospel:
Starting again from the margins with the gospel responds to the deep needs of the Christian way in history. It is not a strategy to arrive progressively at the center of society. Rather, it is a decisive step toward the heart of the Christian message. The regeneration of the church and Christian life starts from a passion for the margins and the marginalized, the discovery of the joyful task of living and sharing the gospel on the margins.  (p. 175).
We often speak of the renewal of the church, and Francis has pointed us To the Margins, for there we will experience that renewing presence of God that we seek, for God has always been present on the margins, even if our attention has been directed elsewhere. Thus, we can be thankful both to Francis and Andrea Riccardi. 


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