June 19, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Seeing poverty with our eyes and our hearts

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

During Lent, the Catholic bishops of Indiana issued our pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana. There was no media frenzy, no public acclaim (or protests), and no indication that daily life in the Hoosier State would be any different the day after our letter was published than it was the day before.

But we bishops are not discouraged. We believe that, once planted, seeds can grow and produce abundant fruit—especially if they are nourished by the Holy Spirit and cultivated by women and men of good will.

Our hope is that this pastoral letter on poverty will be read, discussed and acted upon by individuals, families, parish communities, schools and social service agencies in ways that can make a real difference in the lives of our sisters and brothers who are poor here in Indiana.

The Church speaks about the poor because that’s what Jesus did. The Church feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, shelters the homeless, teaches the uneducated, and provides health care to those who are sick because that’s what Jesus instructed us to do. What’s more, our Lord told us that in doing these things for others—the least of his sisters and brothers—we are doing them for him (see Matthew 25).

The purpose of our pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana, is to call attention to the poverty that exists right here within the state that calls itself the “Crossroads of America.” It contains no simple answers or magic formulas for eliminating poverty.

Instead, our letter uses the template “see, judge, act” to invite and challenge all Hoosiers (beginning with ourselves, the bishops of the five Catholic dioceses in Indiana) “to be more attentive to the poor in our communities, to identify the systemic issues that keep individuals and families poor, and to take concrete steps to reduce the long-term impact of poverty in our state, even as we reach out and help those who, here and now, suffer from its devastating effects.”

The first step is to see the poverty that exists in our communities, in the urban, rural, suburban and small-town neighborhoods that make up the state of Indiana. The refusal to recognize poverty or to take it seriously is as old as humanity itself. If we let ourselves, we can easily ignore the poor. Worse, we can come to regard the plight of the hungry, homeless, unemployed, chronically ill and uneducated as “normal.” We can choose to pay attention to other things and simply allow the status quo to remain unaddressed.

Jesus warned his disciples about this self-imposed blindness, which Pope Francis calls “the sin of indifference.” The Lord’s parable about the poor man, Lazarus, and the rich man who chose to ignore him every day (Lk 16:19-21) is intended to wake us up, to move us beyond our comfort zones, and to call our attention to the reality of poverty which is right in front of our eyes.

Recall that when the rich man died he suffered eternal damnation, whereas poor Lazarus enjoyed eternal life in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man realized—too late—his mistake and tried unsuccessfully to warn others. The lesson for us, of course, is to pay attention now, to see poverty for what it is and to have compassion for the suffering of the very real women and men (our sisters and brothers) who are suffering the effects of poverty right in front of our eyes here and now.

The Church teaches us to see poverty with both our eyes and our hearts. The truth is that poverty exists and that it has the power to destroy individuals, families and communities. Do we see poverty for what it is? Or have we chosen not to see our brothers and sisters who are poor?

Seeing with our eyes is the first step, but it is essential that we also “see” poverty with our hearts. Jesus was moved to compassion by the sight of the poor. His heart was filled to overflowing by the pain of others. His prayerful dialogue with his Father expressed the compassion that he had for the poor and for all who suffered from any affliction of mind, body or spirit.

I plan to continue writing about Poverty at the Crossroads throughout this summer. I hope this will help me do a better job of responding to poverty as Jesus would.

I also hope my simple reflections on poverty in Indiana will help me and others see the poor among us with our eyes and with our hearts. †

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