A wretched woman rattles her tin. “La mia famiglia,” she wails. Another is prostrate on the pavement. She reeks of desperation.
With a dirty shawl drawn around her face, a third shakes uncontrollably as she is shuffled away by police. On the streets of any city you will stumble upon beggars like these. But these are not just any beggars.
They decorate the doorstep of the headquarters of the wealthiest institution on earth: The Catholic Church.
On New Year’s Day, Pope Francis spoke from the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square, asking, “What on earth is happening in the heart of humanity?”
“Everyone must be committed to building a society that is truly just and caring.”
Much is made of Il Papa’s humble living arrangements and common touch. But it’s all spin and no substance: his planned commissions to reform the central Vatican administration will do little to address the pittance spent on the poor.
According to a 2012 investigation by The Economist, the church spends $170 billion in the US alone each year. (That’s more than the worldwide revenue of Apple or General Motors.)
Of that, the charity budget is barely five per cent.
As Slate magazine noted wryly, “The Catholic Church is hardly unique in taking advantage of the First Amendment to engage in some opaque accounting”.
But the Church’s CEOs have been shameless in their hypocrisy. Blinded by the glare of the Vatican treasures, the current boss calls on others to address inequality.
The front page of the International New York Times on Monday read, “Popular Voice in the Capitol? It’s the Pope’s”. On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty, Senate Democrats are exhorting colleagues to deal with income inequality.
“You know,” declared Senator Bernard Sanders, a Jewish independent, who caucuses with Democrats, “we have a strong ally on our side in this issue — and that is the Pope”.
The story continued: “From 4,500 miles away at the Vatican, Pope Francis, who has captivated the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance, has become a presence in Washington’s policy debate.”
The Pope was “breathing new life into the fight against poverty” by denouncing “trickle down theories”, the “dictatorship” of free market forces, and the “economy of exclusion”.
If the church can influence the state to narrow the gap between rich and poor in the most inequitable developed country on earth, that’s a good thing.
But surely the Pope needs to get his own house in order first.
On Christmas Eve, we emptied our pockets for the beggars before paying for the privilege of viewing the Vatican.*
We gasped at the garish display of gilded treasures. The gold-plated ceilings. The jewel-encrusted robes.
My seven-year-old daughter Grace summed it up beautifully: “Mum, why don’t they give some of the gold to the poor women crying outside?”
I know, it sounds simple. But it is possible: If the church repents for committing the seven deadly sins.
It has been greedy for wealth; slothful in generosity; gluttonous for power; lustful for flesh; envious of rivals; wrathful to homosexuals; and too proud to apologise.
To this we can add an eighth sin: Hypocrisy.
A week before Christmas, the Holy Father handed out prepaid phone cards and Metro tickets: a poor man’s Father Christmas.
It was a stunt. Window-dressing. And, frankly, insulting.
Instead, Time’s Person of the Year should peer over of the heads of the tens of thousands of passionate pilgrims, to see the small handful of faithful who really need his help.
Amen to that.
*Tracey Spicer visited the Vatican at the behest of her Catholic mother-in-law. She remains an atheist.