Kirk poverty campaigner reflects on Vatican visit

Martin Johnstone, the Church of Scotland's Priority Areas Secretary, recently attended the first Global Meeting of Popular Movements hosted by the Vatican in Rome. Here he reflects on his visit.

Martin Johnstone with Pope Francis Priority Areas Secretary, Martin Johnstone, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome.

It was an extraordinary week, spent in the company of cardinals and peasant farmers, waste-pickers and academics, slum-dwellers and priests. About 150 of us gathered from every corner of the earth. There was a deliberate bias towards the global south. The majority knew about the struggle against poverty as a daily reality. It was, as Pope Francis so graphically put it, 'the mud in which they lived out their lives.'

We were there at the invitation of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and at the instigation of the Pope. We spent several hours in his company. He listened to us and we listened to him. As the group celebrated Mass in St Peter's Basilica with a huge refuge collection trolley beside the alter, it felt like a symbol that the poor are truly first in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Again and again I was struck and challenged by people's courage. I was struck by the Holy Father's courage as he seeks to lead the Catholic Church into a deeper sense of the joy of the Gospel witnessed so often in the lives of the poor. He reflected on how some were calling him a Communist but he was simply trying to follow Jesus.

I was inspired by the courage of an extra-ordinary woman from New Delhi who spoke about her life as a waste-picker, about the difference she was making in her community and for her family. I was inspired by slum-dwellers who spoke of standing against the evil that would cut off their water supply, bulldoze their homes and drive them from their land. I felt incredibly humbled in the company of campesinos (peasant-farmers) who sang, cried and laughed as they shared their struggle against multinationals raping and destroying their land in the name of progress.

Perhaps the one moment in the entire trip that will live with me for the rest of my life was the words of one Guatemalan Bishop. 'The Church in Guatemala,' he said, 'has already opted for the poor, all the way to martyrdom.'

It would be easy to imagine that this was a sombre and difficult gathering. The opposite was the case. There was much laughter, huge creativity and a great deal of joyful singing and dancing. We were completely committed to people's struggle for land, for homes and for work but we also knew how to enjoy one another's company.

I have been changed and challenged by the people I have met. I have come back more acutely aware of the awfulness of human suffering and the joy of solidarity. As someone who has spent my entire ministry in what the Church of Scotland calls priority areas - the economically poorest parts of Scotland - I know that some of that suffering also exists in our nation and in our communities. I hope that I will have greater courage not only to personally challenge such profound injustice but also to encourage the Church to live out the Gospel more prophetically.