An Incarnate Economy: Reflecting on the first gathering of the global Economy of Francesco Movement

I’m walking across the muddy grounds of Eremo delle Carceri, breathing in the clean scent of the mountain air that rises just above Assisi– an ideal setting for contemplating the week’s events.  The Economy of Francesco’s global gathering just came to a close, and I’m basking in gratitude for the days of encounter with protagonists across the globe. 

I want to hold onto this feeling. I want to linger on this mountaintop.

It seemed like, every fifteen minutes, I sunk deeply into the reality of a different part of the world: the contours of their local economies, how they are shaped by systems and global forces, how they are contemplating the gap between old ways and institutions and the future we aspire for, endeavoring toward self-determination. 

I met Mercy, a social entrepreneur in Kenya who is bringing solar-powered electricity to villages across East Africa. She wonders about financing the project and what it would mean to support good work for the residents of each village she works in. But even as she speaks, foreign governments are providing attractive microloans and increasing their soft power in the region, shrinking local autonomy. 

I shared lunch with Fr. Juan Manuel Rega, a young priest who has built eleven cooperatives – from construction to brewing – which now provide good work for over 200 people in some of the poorest parts of Argentina. Others from Argentina situated the prophetic witness of this project alongside the nation’s ongoing struggles with inflation and its lack of decent work, as well as the unfolding movements of economic systems change (such as Sistema B), the circular economy, and a recognition of what we can learn from the informal economy’s prevalence and growth. 

In this gathering of  bold young leaders, we were also accompanied by the elders among us– global leaders who are pioneers of the social and solidarity economy movements across communities and institutions. By their presence, they served as faithful witnesses to the challenges of our time, listening to the longings of the next generation and offering support. 

Pope Francis, addressing these “protagonists of transformation,” emphasized that the change we seek is inherently a cooperative undertaking – across generations, geographies, ways of seeing and thinking. If we look to creation, we will see that plants are always cooperating with those around them to change the ecosystem and to adapt: “Scripture is full of trees and life,” Pope Francis said, “and St. Francis helps us to understand the plant economy.”

It’s a fitting reflection for us, gathered together at the foot of Assisi. It was also here that, over 800 years ago, St. Francis dedicated himself fully to God and chose to live a life of radical simplicity, placing the poor at the center of all he did. That radical commitment gave life to some groundbreaking developments in the economy. Franciscan friars opened Montes Pietatius, or “benevolent lending institutions,” to provide low interest loans to the poor, a radical alternative to the dominant practice of usury at the time. It ushered in a series of economic transformations.

In a similar way, Pope Francis invited us – the Economy of Francesco – to place those who inhabit the peripheries of our communities and institutions  at the center of our efforts to transform the economy. He reminds us that we are to open new paths that will allow the poor to become the main protagonists of the change we seek. While charity accompanies today’s dominant capitalist system, charity alone fails to respect the poor and see them in their full humanity. If we took the words of Jesus’ words to heart– “Blessed are the poor”–  how would we change? Who would we become? What kind of economy would we seek? 

Pope Francis also called us to “…not forget work and workers… for this is the greatest challenge of our time.” He reminded us that we can’t live well without good work, and that decent work for all must be at the center of our commitment to a new economy.

He emphasizes, too, that the first capital in any society is spiritual capital, that sustainability has relational and spiritual dimensions. 

In the moment, what struck me most was his appeal that we make our ideals and values incarnate. We must “use our heads, hearts, and hands,” for ideas are necessary but can “become traps unless they become a practical daily commitment.” And that, while concrete work and initiatives shine less brightly, they “make the world fruitful,” for “reality is superior to ideas.”

In a world full of big ideas, what are we doing to make them incarnate? 

Making an idea incarnate requires courage, experimentation and iteration. We need to first encounter and make friends with those on the peripheries. Only then can we begin to see the systems we’re in the middle of; structures of violence are not always readily visible to privileged investors. Unless we go to the margins, we will not recognize the havoc our systems wreak on global communities –whether it’s the indigenous communities of the Amazon or the Congolese communities bound by the mining industry. 

When I reflect back on the stories of Mercy and Fr. Juan Miguel, I see the incarnation Pope Francis speaks of. And as I learned in Assisi–surrounded by the leading minds, hearts, and hands of the Economy of Francesco Movement–when we step courageously and act together, transformation is possible.

We have beautiful, important work ahead. 

May we be bold enough to continue. May we be bold enough to begin.

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