March 13, 2015


Toward a Church that is poor and for the poor

Upon his election as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis declared himself to be one with the poor. He also shared with the world his longing for a Church that is poor and is for the poor.

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me” (Mk 14:7, Mt. 26:11).

Was Jesus telling his disciples that the poor are not a priority? Not at all. That would hardly be consistent with his words and actions throughout his public ministry. Jesus was poor, and he was for the poor, in exactly the way the Pope Francis longs for.

This week, the Catholic bishops of Indiana issued a pastoral letter “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana.” The purpose of this letter is “to call attention to the poverty that exists right here within the state that calls itself the ‘Crossroads of America.’ ” (Spanish version here)

Using the simple formula of See, Judge, Act, the bishops invite and challenge everyone, beginning with themselves, “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.”

See. The bishops quote the parable (Lk 16:19-21) about the poor “street person” named Lazarus, and the rich man who passed him every day without noticing him. “It is apparent that the rich man could not—or would not—see the poverty that was right in front of his eyes.” Does this parable apply to us, the bishops ask? “Have we chosen not to see our brothers and sisters who are poor?”

Judge. Poverty is not just a personal or family problem. It is an indictment of the societies and civil institutions that are based on human inequality and the survival of the fittest. Poverty destroys families. It creates an unbalanced and unproductive economy. It weakens our schools and our health care institutions. It promotes addiction, crime and all sorts of immorality. Christians are called to make informed decisions about policies and practices at the local, regional, national and global levels that will identify the root causes of poverty and work to eradicate them. We are challenged to elect political leaders who do more than give lip service to the needs of the poor and oppressed, especially the most vulnerable members of our society—the unborn, elderly, infirm and marginalized.

Act. “We invite all who read these words to join us in reaching out to the poor members of our state. We challenge everyone, beginning with ourselves, to engage the leaders of business, government and voluntary organizations throughout our state in effecting meaningful changes in the policies and practices that perpetuate in all its manifestations.”

This call to act affirms that “actions do speak louder than words,” but it also underscores the seriousness and complexity of the problem. If eradicating poverty were uncomplicated, or easily accomplished, it would have been done long ago.

Unfortunately, the poor are always with us, which is another way of saying that the root causes of poverty are deeply ingrained in our sinful human condition. To eliminate poverty, we must convert our minds and hearts; we must change the way we see ourselves and our world; and we must allow the grace of Christ to transform our individual and communal actions so that we build up (rather than tear down) our sisters and brothers who are poor.

“If we give priority to family life, work, education and health care,” the bishops write, “an economically strong, well-educated and healthy Indiana” will be the result. It’s simple, but not easy.

What can we do to help alleviate poverty? Pray. Strengthen families (starting with our own). Advocate for quality, accessibility and affordability in education and health care. Support Catholic Charities and other social service agencies in Indiana through generous stewardship of time, talent and treasure.

“Catholic social teaching insists that the needs of the poor must take priority,” the bishops say in “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana.”

Now is the time to see it for what it is, to make judgments about root causes and solutions, and to act as Jesus did to help all who suffer from the devastating effects of poverty—here and now—in the Crossroads of America.

—Daniel Conway

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