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Remember the poor

September 6, 2015

A reflection for the 23rd Sunday, Ordinary Time, Year B. The readings are Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5 and Mark 7:31-37.

When the Cardinals were in Conclave three years ago, the story goes that when the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had the majority of votes, his Brazilian friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes leaned over and whispered to him, “remember the poor.” Pope Francis, says that up to that point everything was a bit of a blur, but at that moment he thought of St. Francis of Assisi, Il poverello, “the poor one” and knew that would be his name, “Francis.” It’s pretty clear today that his papacy has put not just the poor at the front, but all who are marginalised, the people he calls, “the throways.” But I’ve always wondered why Cardinal Hummes said that. Why ‘remember the poor’? Had the Church been neglecting the poor? I don’t think so.

If anyone has been caring for the poor, it’s been the Catholic Church. You can’t be Catholic if you don’t “prefer the poor.” In fact, the “preferential option for the poor” is one of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching. It’s found in Canon Law and in the Catechism as well as in many Church documents. It only takes a quick glance through Scripture to notice that not only the Church has a preferential option for the poor, but it seems God also has a preference for the poor. In today’s second reading, St. James says that “God has chosen the poor” (James 2:5) but the Old Testament if filled with passages that say that God cares for widows and orphans. God cares for the poor and the lowly. God cares for the blind and the deaf and the lame and for refugees and slaves. Jesus said that if we want to get into Heaven we have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison and that it’s very difficult for a rich person to enter Heaven. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus Christ became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9). Yes, Jesus was born in a stable, he was poor; he loved the poor and God loves the poor. And so does the Church.

We’re lucky in Canada that we have such a sophisticated social system for people who need help, but it wasn’t always like that. And we wouldn’t have any of that if it wasn’t for Christianity and the Church. If you go to any country in the world, who will you find caring for the sick and feeding the homeless? The Church. In the United States you can’t go to the hospital if you don’t have insurance, so what do people who don’t have insurance do? They go to a Catholic hospital. If our governments ever stopped providing welfare and other types of help for the poor and the needy, you know who would continue helping them no matter what? The Church. Because that’s who we are. There are 1 billion people in this planet who survive on less than 1 dollar a day. That means they have no access to enough food, to clean water, to education or healthcare. It is estimated that around the world, every day, some 25,000 people die of malnutrition. Who cares for all these people? The Church.

So why did Cardinal Hummes tell Cardinal Bergoglio to remember the poor? I think we’re doing a pretty good job. Or are we?

Perhaps because the Church has been so good at caring for the poor, we: you and I, have neglected caring for the poor. Because we have the Missionaries of Charity and the Brothers of the Good Shepherd and so many other congregetaions dedicated to helping the poor and it’s easy to say, “oh, the St. Vincent de Paul Society does that” or “that’s why we have Share Life and they provide for all those agencies that do such good work.” So we don’t do it. All we do is write a cheque, or we don’t write a cheque because we know others will and we say “when I have a better job I’ll help the poor.” In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis says that this option for the poor is not “a mission that is reserved only to a few” (#188). We must all have a preferential option for the poor. Because God has a preferential option for the poor. I have to be honest, I struggle with this. I have the same attitudes that many of us have. We think, “Why can’t they just get a job?” or “if they worked harder or made better choices they wouldn’t be in this situation.” These are attitudes that we have. That’s why St. James in today’s second reading is so good a bringing all of this home for us. Who would we treat better if they came to our parish? Who would get more attention? A good-looking, rich, famous person, like George Clooney and his lawyer wife, or a smelly homeless person who talks to herself?

We must change our attitudes on the poor and the marginalized. For an explanation I take a page from my friend Joe Zambon. Joe is a Catholic singer/songwriter. Joe wrote a song called, “Remember the Poor.” He says that he also struggled with this same question, “why should we care for the poor?” He realized that God prefers the poor because compared to God, we are all poor (see video below for more). When in the presence of God, all of us are poor beggars; we are all weak, blind, deaf, disabled; we are all orphans and refugees; we are all slaves. That’s why Jesus constantly cared for the poor and the sick. That’s why Isaiah says in today’s first reading that when we arrive in the Promised Land the blind will see and the deaf shall hear. When we arrive at our final destination we will be poor no more. But for now, we are poor. And because we are a people of signs and symbols – we live in a material world and so we have physical signs that point to something spiritual, something greater (that’s why we have Sacraments) – every time we care for the poor we are reminded of how God cares for us, who are poor, and how much we need God. There is no one who has ever lived or who is alive today or who will ever live who does not need God.

But Pope Francis wants us to do more than just care for the poor. Listen to what he writes in The Joy of the Gospel:

“This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us… in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them…. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” (#198)

We are called not just to care for the poor but to be poor ourselves. Again, I struggle with this. Recently I was with another Catholic songwriter, Fr. Richard Ho Lung – he founded the Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica. Fr. Ho Lung was a Jesuit priest, like Pope Francis – he taught at a prestigious Jesuit school in Kingston, Jamaica – but felt that he could not ignore the poor. He needed to live with the poor. So he did. He founded the Missionaries of the Poor, a community that now exists in many countries. I asked him if it wasn’t enough that we only cared for the poor. Do we also have to be poor? He said, “Absolutely!” It’s not enough to just care for the poor; we have to be a poor Church for the poor.

Did I say that I struggle with this? I don’t think anyone is saying that we have to sell everything we own and give it to the poor – but let me leave you with this: Perhaps we need to pray and meditate on what it means to be poor. Can we simplify our lives? Do I really need three TVs? Do I need 25 pairs of shoes? Do I need to have a cafe latte every day on my way to work? Can we get rid of things that make it harder for us to depend on God? That’s why Jesus says that it’s very difficult for a rich person to enter Heaven. When we are rich, we have it all, we are not in need and we can solve all our own problems. When we are poor, we have nothing – we depend on others for help; it’s easier to depend on God.

Joe Zambon’s song is called Remember the Poor.
He sings,

“May I never forget the poor.
Unless I go and forget who I am.
May I never forget who I am.
For I am poor.”

Let’s not forget who we are. Today, as you come to receive the Eucharist, think of who you are receiving, the one who became poor for our sake – the one who sends us to care for those who are not as fortunate as we are. Think of who we are, the poor beggars who need Christ and let’s pray that our ears be opened that we may hear the cry of the poor.

From → English, Reflections

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