A few years ago, I travelled to Zambia in Africa to spend some time with a missionary order. It was the experience of a lifetime, stepping out into the unknown and into another world very different to the one I had been used to. I knew it was going to be a challenge but one I felt I needed at the time. We can so easy settle down in comfort zones where intentionally or unintentionally we rest smugly in safe spaces remaining buffered from some of the major wounds that our human family bears. There in those “buffered zones” we remain comfortable but we don’t grow. Yeah, sure, I knew about poverty in Africa and responded when I could with donations to appeals when they were made. This was one thing. But going to touch the wounds of poverty by living among the people it effects is another. So with trust in the Lord, I headed for Africa. My experience there was life changing. As I travelled out, in my heart I wanted to help change the lives of the poor as best I could. As I returned home, I was the one changed by them.
On the 19th of November this year, the thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary time, the Church marks the first “World Day of the Poor.” In highlighting his purpose for instituting the World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis says that: “We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life” (Message for the First World Day of the Poor, n. 3). With these challenging words, the Holy Father says that while occasional acts of charity are good in themselves, we Christians cannot content ourselves with a sporadic acts of charity towards the poor while remaining distant from their plight. If such a distance continues to exist, even if alms are given in good faith, the transformation of them and us will be minimal. What Pope Francis is calling for is something more radical. He calls for a deep solidarity with the poor and a culture of encounter which leads to sharing with those who no longer remain strangers but become a brother or sister who needs me. When this encounter happens, true evangelization takes place where there is giving and receiving in both directions. We become good news for the poor but the poor in turn evangelize us. Only then can we be truly transformed and united in our joy in the praise of God.
When I read Pope Francis’ words for this “Word Day of the Poor,” he described precisely how the poor of Zambia had evangelized me and what they taught me: “Let us never forget that, for Christ’s disciples, poverty is above all a call to follow Jesus in his own poverty. It means walking behind him and beside him, a journey that leads to the beatitude of the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 5:3; Lk 6:20). Poverty means having a humble heart that accepts our creaturely limitations and sinfulness and thus enables us to overcome the temptation to feel omnipotent and immortal. Poverty is an interior attitude that avoids looking upon money, career and luxury as our goal in life and the condition for our happiness. Poverty instead creates the conditions for freely shouldering our personal and social responsibilities, despite our limitations, with trust in God’s closeness and the support of his grace” (Message for the First World Day of the Poor, n. 4).
This was my experience in Zambia where the little I contributed to the people was tiny compared to what I received from them. Most of these people had barely enough to eat each day and had little or no possessions. Yet they had a joy that was infectious and a humility that melted my pride, helping me see my own poverty with new eyes. Realizing my poverty drew me closer to them and to God. Being among them confirmed at the deepest level within me that God has truly united himself to ‘“the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matt. 25: 40, 45). When we gathered for Mass in a packed Church, we all realized our poverty before God be it materially or spiritually and joined together in worship of Him who “hears the cry of the poor” (Ps. 34:17) and “raises the poor from the dust” (Ps. 113:7).
In his message, Pope Francis offers the example of St Francis of Assisi who not only gave to the poor but was changed by them. Francis was not content to embrace the leper and give him alms, but understood that true charity consists in standing together, close to one another, considering the pain and suffering of the other’s disease, as well as the distress of his marginalization. All of these things touched Francis’ heart and changed him. He describes his conversion by the poor in this way: “When I was in my sins, it seemed a thing too bitter to look on lepers. But the Lord himself led me among them and I showed them mercy. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of mind and body” (Text 1-3:FF 110). Here we could mention other heroes and heroines of charity who not only evangelized the poor but who were evangelized by the poor: St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Frances of Rome, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Katharine Drexel, St. Damien of Molokai, Servant of God Dorothy Day, Blessed Oscar Romero. When we read the lives of these saints and blessed, we notice how they all helped the poor heroically but were also changed by the poor to become the saints they are today.
Friends, on this first “World Day of the Poor,” let us allow it to challenge us. May it invite us to identify the poor living in our midst, to draw near to them, to encounter them, to embrace them and let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude. In the concluding remarks of Pope Francis: “The poor are not a problem; they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practise in our lives the essence of the Gospel.” May we be good news for them and they be good news for us so that together in the Body of Christ we might grow in holiness, know our poverty and need for God.