Who would ever have guessed this would happen? Well, it did. And in the quiet month of Rome’s roasting August, when the city experiences a near-total exodus to cooler climes. Very few journalists, in either the religious or secular press, noticed. Yet, it rightfully made headlines in The National, an online news service based in the developing nation of Papua New Guinea.
As part of his monthly intention, released worldwide through the Pontifical Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Pope Francis requested we pray steadfastly for SMEs, small and medium-sized enterprises, even while most of us are vacationing and enjoying the fruits of our labors. As a hardcore advocate of entrepreneurship in Rome, I’ve been waiting two decades to hear a clergyman, no less a pope, acknowledge the value of SMEs. Needless to say, the August 2 announcement was very welcome news.
In his video message, Francis said, to the surprise of many free marketeers: “Let us pray for small and medium-sized businesses, hard hit by the economic and social crisis, so they may find ways to continue operating, and serving their communities.”
I’m being a little facetious with my mock-shock tone. After all, as in this recent article, I would never claim the pope is 100% anti-capitalist. This particularly rings true in the very same month he’s preparing a reform of the Vatican’s investment strategies to be not only more transparent and less scandal-prone, but above all ethically responsible and prudentially productive. Even if Francis does have a penchant for zingers aimed at so-called unbridled capitalists (do these bogeymen even exist?), labeling their “idolatry of money” as the “dung of the devil,” and even later admitting that money-grubbing is rife inside the Catholic Church, he still supports entrepreneurs.
In fact, small and medium-sized businesses are particularly endearing to the pope, says French Jesuit and director of the pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network Fr. Frédéric Fornos, because these underdogs courageously keep critical business services and products afloat during very stormy economic times. Fornos cleverly adds that they are part of a “Noah moment,” an opportunity for SMEs “to build something different” from “the bottom up.”
In his message, Francis clarifies his call to spiritual warfare in support of SMEs:
As a consequence of the pandemic and the wars, the world is facing a grave socio-economic crisis. Among those most affected are small and medium-sized businesses: stores, workshops, cleaning businesses, transportation businesses, and so many others. …They all dedicate an immense creative capacity to changing things from the bottom up, from where the best creativity always comes from. With courage, with effort, with sacrifice, they invest in life, creating well-being, opportunities, and work.
Francis’ statement is especially empowering to entrepreneurs of small and midsize industrial capacity. They, too, often humbly forget (despite being frequently reminded by the U.S. International Trade Commission) that they are the behemoth of the American economy: “SMEs make up 99.9 percent of all U.S. businesses and employ approximately 60.6 million people, or 47.1 percent of the private workforce.”
Bingo, Pope Francis! SMEs are our economic bedrock, and it is no different, on average, in any other national economy. Collectively, SMEs are a veritable “superpower.” As the World Bank glowingly reports:
SMEs account for the majority of businesses worldwide and are important contributors to job creation and global economic development. They represent about 90% of businesses and more than 50% of employment worldwide. Formal SMEs contribute up to 40% of national income (GDP) in emerging economies.
Now let’s get to Francis’ deeper spiritual point. In helping to build up economic prosperity for entire communities, and even the world’s wealthiest nations, SME entrepreneurs conduct risky business. However, in doing so, they at least act valiantly as dignified “subjects.” This is the papal legacy of St. John Paul II, who taught us in his Cold War–era social encyclical Laborem exercens that free-willed, creative work is a good thing for the human soul’s earthly fulfillment. Like the Polish anti-Marxist, the Argentine pope hails from a morally and financially bankrupt economy. Francis has seen too many “little guys” snuffed out by corporatist corruption, monopolies, and cartels that prevented them from realizing their God-given vocational potential. Often they are treated as underlings, a mere means to someone else’s dreams, or as ever-spinning cogs in centralized-government plans. Or worse still, they fail in their potential when economies offer no opportunity at all, as in countries like Burundi and Sierra Leone, part of the world’s “bottom 10.”
While Pope Francis’ prayer intention may not exactly mean his class warfare rhetoric is over and done with, as he fires yet another arrow at the rich (SMEs are “the ones that don’t appear on the world’s richest and most powerful lists, … [they] invest in the common good instead of hiding their money in tax havens”), his moral and practical point still holds water. SMEs play a more than significant role in keeping economies from sinking into an abyss of financial devastation and destitution.
Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs should be dead proud of their economic class, not envious of anyone. All said,2022 represents more than just a “Noah moment” for SMEs; they are called to play a unique and necessary role for as long as healthy, free markets exist. And they always need our prayers.