Pope Francis casts a prophetic eye on the poor

By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald Commentary

Among the many ways in which Pope Francis has been truly prophetic in his teaching ministry has been his insistence from the beginning of his pontificate that the church should be of and for the poor.

The Holy Father yet again has posed that challenge to our consciences with his message for the “Third World Day of the Poor,” which will be celebrated by the universal church next Sunday, Nov. 17.

Invoking the 9th Psalm, Pope Francis writes: “The hope of the poor will not perish forever.”

What does that mean for us in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, whose daily commute to and from work offers a firsthand experience of the reality of poverty and homelessness on our streets? I see this is many parts of our archdiocese.

The 9th Psalm was written at a time when there was great economic prosperity but also severe poverty. Does that social imbalance ring true today?

“It was a time when arrogant and ungodly people hounded the poor, seeking to take possession even of what little they had, and to reduce them to bondage,” Pope Francis writes. “The situation is not much different today. The economic crisis has not prevented large groups of people from accumulating fortunes that often appear incongruous when, in the streets of our cities, we daily encounter great numbers of the poor who lack the bare necessities of life and are at times harassed and exploited.”

During his trips across the globe, Pope Francis has visited the poor where they live – both to shine a light on their plight and prick the conscience of those who have more material goods than they could ever need in a lifetime.

The Holy Father is blunt in his examination of conscience: “How many times do we see poor people rummaging through garbage bins to retrieve what others have discarded as superfluous, in the hope of finding something to live on or to wear! They themselves become part of the human garbage bin; they are treated as refuse, without the slightest sense of guilt on the part of those who are complicit in this scandal.”

When I visited the Holy Land recently, we celebrated Mass at the Mount of Beatitudes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus began his proclamation of the kingdom of God at that very spot by delivering a paradoxical message: “Blessed are you who are poor.”

How can that be? Pope Francis says the meaning of that Beatitude is that “the kingdom of God belongs to the poor because they are in a position to receive it. … Centuries go by and the Beatitude appears even more paradoxical: the poor are always poorer, and today the poor are poorer than ever.”

While Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God, the pope says he “entrusted to us, his disciples, the task of carrying it forward with responsibility for giving hope to the poor.”

One of priorities of the archdiocese’s 9th General Synod was for our local church to “be a voice and witness for Catholic social teaching” by encouraging parishes to support the poor with services of their own and through referrals to other organizations, many operated by the archdiocese, that serve the poor.

I am grateful to the parishes and parishioners who are fulfilling that mission. Parishes collect and distribute food for the poor. Some even have food boxes outside their churches.

Second Harvest Food Bank is an archdiocesan agency that provides nutritional assistance to the poor across southeast Louisiana, including mobile pantries, school pantries, a backpack program for students, after-school meals, summer feeding programs and health fairs.

In addition to meeting the need for food through Food for Families/Food for Seniors, Catholic Charities provides other badly needed services such as case management for individuals and families in crisis, emergency housing, counseling services, prison re-entry programs and parenting seminars.

Many parishes have individual chapters of the St. Vincent de Paul Society or other ministries to help the poor in their backyard. In our archdiocese, we also have Ozanam Inn,  a special ministry to provide shelter for the homeless. 

Meeting the “most obvious material needs” of the poor is a priority, but Pope Francis impels us to go further in our love for the poor.

“Certainly, the poor come to us also because we give them food, but what they really need is more than our offer of a warm meal or a sandwich,” Pope Francis says. “The poor need our hands, to be lifted up; our hearts, to feel anew the warmth of affection; our presence, to overcome loneliness. In a word, they need love.”

Pope Francis is giving us this “Third World Day of the Poor” to remember in prayer our call to serve the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. How can we broaden our definition of who the poor are? Pope Francis is calling us to look with a discerning eye to the peripheries.

Who is my neighbor?

Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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