Even atheists, agnostics and humanists, as well as people of the great religious traditions, would likely welcome Pope Francis instituting a new World Day of the Poor. While a shallow and at times vulgar commercialism trivialises the profound religious meaning of Christmas, the World Day of the Poor highlights our God-given responsibility for all in distress.
Francis has surprised us instituting this new World Day of the Poor to be commemorated every year just before Advent begins preparing us for Christmas. Yet this innovation is reiterating a constant theme of Pope Francis about our responsibility to end extreme inequality and poverty, and transform our world to ensure peace, social justice and care for the environment.
Francis is highlighting that concern for the ‘poor’, the distressed and marginalised is ‘at the heart of the Gospel’. As St Mathew (Ch. 25) writes, God identifies intensely with all who are sick, poor, hungry, homeless, strangers or prisoners, and expects, or rather demands, believers respond to them in love and solidarity. All people of good will can resonate profoundly with that message.
Francis once said he had learned two things in his life: to speak simply, and use symbols. He has now nominated this World Day of the Poor as a potent symbol for the whole Church, insisting that Christians be earnest about their commitment to promoting human wellbeing, not just in the abstract, but personally. Francis tweeted: ‘On this day, I invite the entire Church to keep its gaze fixed on those who hold out their hands asking for our solidarity.’
Francis has an unusual knack of putting things simply. It is somewhat like Jesus’ words in the Gospels, using simple language and everyday events to convey their religious significance. Francis is not saying much on these issues that earlier popes have not said, but he has a gift of communication in his personality and catchy phrases, like urging priests to ‘smell like the sheep’, to be close with people personally in their real life situations.
‘God is not a ticket inspector looking for unstamped tickets’
Some 7,000 people joined Pope Francis at Mass in St Peter’s Square in Rome on 19 November, with homeless and poor people from around Rome, along with refugees, in front row seats in front of the cardinals and bishops. In his homily Francis said each of us has talents, a mission in life. In God’s eyes, we are all talented. ‘Consequently no one can think that he or she is useless, so poor as to be incapable of giving something to others.’ God is only displeased with us if we do not use the talents given us, if we fail to do good.
In the view of Francis, ‘omission is the great sin where the poor are concerned’, and it is called ‘indifference”. ‘It is when we say “That doesn’t regard me; it’s not my business; it’s society’s problem.” It is when we turn away from a brother or sister in need, when we change channels as soon as a disturbing question comes up, when we grow indignant at evil but do nothing about it. God will not ask us if we felt righteous indignation, but whether we did some good.’
‘To do no wrong is not enough. God is not an inspector looking for unstamped tickets; he is a father looking for children to whom he can entrust his property and his plans.’
In the faces of the poor, Francis continued, ‘we can imagine seeing Jesus’ own face; on their lips, even if pursed in pain, we can hear his words: “This is my body”.’
‘We see true goodness and strength not in closed fists and crossed arms, but in ready hands outstretched to the poor, to the wounded flesh of the Lord. There, in the poor, we find the presence of Jesus.’
‘To love the poor means to combat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material. And it will also do us good. Drawing near to the poor in our midst will touch our lives. It will remind us of what really counts: to love God and our neighbours. Only this lasts forever, everything else passes away.’
In the poor ‘we meet Jesus who speaks to us and appeals to us through their sufferings and their needs.’ If ‘in the eyes of the world they have little value, they are the ones who open to us the way to heaven.” ‘They are our passports to paradise’.
It is the duty of Christians to care for the poor ‘as our real riches’. Francis added that we might ask ourselves: ‘“What counts for me in life? Where am I making my investments?”… to live in order to gain things on earth, or to give things away in order to gain heaven.’
Inviting 1500 of the poor and homeless to a meal
Francis sets the example of being personal with the poor as he mingled and ate with some of the 1500 destitute and marginalised people from around Rome whom he had invited to a meal in Paul VI Hall in the Vatican, at 150 tables each seating ten people. Some 2,500 others were enjoying similar meals in the monasteries, colleges and Church networks around Rome.
The World Day of the Poor is part of Francis’s continuing drive to call Catholics and Christians everywhere to live the Gospel more authentically by giving priority to the words of Jesus about care for the poor. It is a profoundly religious message about meaning in our lives and motivation for how we live.
Pope Francis has set the example. It will be intriguing to see if local churches next year have the imagination and energy to follow in ways appropriate to their varied situations.
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union within Melbourne’s University of Divinity. He is one of the founders of the advocacy network, Social Policy Connections.