Pastoral letter from the bishops of Belgium for the occasion of 50 years of Populorum Progressio of Pope Paul VI
Appeared in the series of Declarations of the Bishops of Belgium, no. 40
On 26 March (Easter) 1967, Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Populorum progression (on the development of peoples) to the world. He broadened the Church’s social teaching by calling for economic development and social justice for all peoples. The document led to a worldwide solidarity movement in the Church, which was prepared by Paul VI on 6 January of that same year 1967 by the establishment of the Commission of Justice and Peace. In our country, Broederlijk Delen (solidarity campaign for Third World countries during Lent) and Welzijnszorg (an Advent campaign against lack of opportunities in the fourth world in our own country) had been active since the early 1960s, and these seamlessly joined this movement.
With the Holy Year of Mercy, which closed in November of last year, Pope Francis provided a key to live the Christian faith in a renewed and creative way. Just before the start of Lent (Ash Wednesday, 1 March), it offers the basis for a deeper reflection about the social impact of mercy.
As we know, the challenges are not negligible. There is an increasing lack of opportunities and social injustice, the question of migrants and refugees, pollution and the threat to the ecological balance... All this does not only require the development of the peoples, but also the communion between peoples to work together for the future of the planet. And mercy is key to achieve this unity. “It is important to have a heart for those in misery,” Pope Francis says. “It is a new sensitivity which allows itself to be challenged by the other and leads to a new attitude.”
John’s story of Jesus healing a blind man (Jn 9:1-41) is the guideline of the pastoral letter. The story of healing is a call to keep believing that mercy can reduce exclusion, and that solidarity, which itself is merciful can emerge in society. “Like the healing of the body results in the healing of the soul, we dare to hope that the promotion of development results in a spiritual discovery and gives new meaning to the mission of mercy,” the bishops write.
The pastoral letter addresses four great challenges in modern society, which cause both progress and exclusion: technology and science, economy, politics and ethics. What is the role of Christians and what is their influence on the development of the world? The social teaching of the Church and the notion of mercy as developed by Pope Francis offer inspiration for possible answers.
- In his encyclical Populorum progression, Paul VI makes clear that social justice also includes the economic development of underdeveloped countries and that development is not limited to merely economic growth, but must be directed towards the development of every human being and the whole person. Pope Francis adds that social justice requires the social integration of the poor in order to be able to hear their voice.
- The means for achieving social justice, as Populorum progression teaches, is solidarity. Pope Francis emphasises that solidarity requires the creation of a new mentality that is expressed in terms of community, of the priority of life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few. Moreover, “solidarity must be lived as a decision to return to the poor what is theirs”.
- Regarding politics, which today lead to war and violence among peoples and societies, the establishment of communion between peoples makes a world peace possible if it is inspired by mercy. Everyone deserves recognition and respect, especially those who are habitually excluded.
- True solidarity with the poorest in the world means that we question our way of life and choose a sustainable economy that takes into account the capacity of the world. “We must believe in the power, which can bring about change if we go forward together with many,” the bishops write. This faith in the power of “transition” is the area of community ethics, which includes our entire planet and transcends the exclusion of the weak. The “dynamics of transition” addresses everyone, no matter how weak, and urges the politically responsible ones to form one front to save the planet. In this way we will achieve a dimension of communion between peoples at the service of the entire earth.
The bishops conclude their letter with a word of thanks to all who are already working for the integration of the poor in society and of those who are at the service of reconciliation in the world. At the beginning of the Lent they invite all people of good will to create the link between encouraging changes and true conversion, through prayer, fasting and sharing. They remind that fasting is liberating, as it liberates from all that is superfluous. Fasting is becoming more human, more solidary, more concerned with our earth. It is living according to the ethics of simplicity, which creates space to live well.
And the letter concludes as follows: “We invite you as Christians, in spite of the injustice and violence affecting our world, to continue working for a more just and sustainable world without inequalities, and this together with all men and women who pursue the same goal”.