Q: Archbishop J, Why a World Day of the Poor?
We live in a world with a widening gap between rich and poor. The gap is not just numerical—number of people—it also relates to actual quality of life. When one per cent of the world’s richest people control more wealth than the remaining 99 per cent, we need a day to reflect on this scandal. Here are some facts:
The eight richest persons in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent;
In 2017, the 3.7 billion who make up the poorest half saw no increase in wealth;
The top 1 per cent of the world earned 82 per cent of the wealth generated in the same year;
Billionaire wealth has risen by an annual average of 13 per cent;
Heavily indebted countries—Barbados among them—are asked to pass the burden of debt onto the poorest in their country;
Debt in 116 countries stands beyond critical thresholds.
Today, those who have, have way more than they need. Those who do not are in dire situations. We need to remedy this situation if we are to be true to God’s purpose for us.
Catholic Social Teaching
The tradition of Catholic social teaching, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, provides a rich treasury of reflection on social concerns, of which most Catholics are unaware. After 127 years of reflection, seven principles have emerged as the most important:
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Call to Family, Community, and Participation
Rights and Responsibilities
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Care for God’s Creation
First, everyone has a right to life and thus to be treated with dignity. All humans, therefore, should have the basics—food, shelter, clothes and education. This is not happening in many countries.
This is why the Church makes a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable a basic principle. We give them more and better attention than we give to others. Solidarity, another key principle, calls us all to commit ourselves to the poor, to find the path for each one to live in dignity.
World Day of the Poor
In 2016, at the end of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis called for an annual world day of the poor on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (this Sunday) to keep the plight of the poor before the eyes of the Universal Church. We must become mercy.
In his message for World Day of the Poor 2018, Pope Francis says: “‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him’ (Psalm 34:6). The words of the psalmist become our own whenever we are called to encounter the various conditions of suffering and marginalisation experienced by so many of our brothers and sisters whom we are accustomed to label generically as ‘the poor’” (1).
Psalm 34 provides the theme for this year’s message. The Pope highlights three verbs on the lips of the psalmist: “to cry”, “to answer”, “to free”. The first is the action of the poor, the other two are God’s action in which we are called to participate. This poor man called and the Lord heard him! Did we hear him? To hear we must listen. We need to become a listening Church.
The Holy Father says: “Poverty cannot be summed up in a word; it becomes a cry that rises to heaven and reaches God. What does the cry of the poor express, if not their suffering and their solitude, their disappointment and their hope? We can ask ourselves how their plea, which rises to the presence of God, can fail to reach our own ears, or leave us cold and indifferent” (2).
The scandal of poverty is our indifference and failure to listen to the cry. If we listen, if we hear, we will act; then God uses our hands and feet to achieve his purpose.
As poverty is physically detrimental to the poor, it is spiritually detrimental to us who live with enough. We all know Matthew 25: 35–40, “I was hungry…” The passage says Christ was the poor, the hungry, the suffering one in our midst that we either saw or did not see. Spirituality requires recognising Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.
Pope Francis says: “The psalmist tells us that the Lord does not only listen to the cry of the poor, but responds. His answer as seen in the entire history of salvation, is to share lovingly in the lot of the poor” (3). We are called to participate in this mission.
The Pope continues: “The third verb is ‘to free’. In the Bible, the poor live in the certainty that God intervenes on their behalf to restore their dignity. Poverty is not something that anyone desires, but is caused by selfishness, pride, greed and injustice. These are evils as old as the human race itself, but also sins in which the innocent are caught up, with tragic effects at the level of social life. God’s act of liberation is a saving act for those who lift up to him their sorrow and distress. The bondage of poverty is shattered by the power of God’s intervention” (4).
This is why we have a preferential option for the poor: to listen to their cry and to bring freedom. Poverty is not only on the level of the individual. It is also about the structures of society that keep the poor, poor and the rich, rich.
In each parish we should know the poor who live within our geographical boundaries. The elderly who cannot help themselves, the struggling families, the homeless, refugees, flood victims who are yet to recover, the farmers who lost everything twice this year. We must hear, answer and free them from their poverty.
Pope Paul VI called Authentic Integral Human Development the vocation of the Church, which means working for the growth and development of each person, every dimension of the human person and all people.
Key message: As Church, we need to learn to listen to the poor and to free them from poverty, offering growth to authentic development.
Action Step: We need to know the poor in our parishes. We need to listen to them and to commit to their development, offering them paths to growth.
Scripture passage: Psalm 34