A girl washes utensils in late March outside a temporary shelter near Kashmir, India. CNS photo/Farooq Khan, EPA

Editorial: Listen for the poor

  • November 14, 2018

It is noble to mark the World Day of the Poor with gifts of charity, but Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to go much further than that. He asks us to observe Nov. 18 by making a serious examination of conscience “to see if we are truly capable of hearing the cry of the poor.”

Prior to 2017, as odd as it sounds, the Church had no specific day dedicated to recognizing the plight of the poor. Addressing that omission was the Pope’s final initiative of the 2016 Year of Mercy, when he decreed that the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, which typically falls in November, would be dedicated as a day to walk with the poor of the world.

The first World Day was observed a year ago, and for the second one the Pope is proposing that Catholics do more than reach for their wallets. Cash gifts are “meritorious and necessary” and should be encouraged, he said, but alone they will not change the world. To achieve that outcome requires a global commitment to genuinely empathize with the suffering of the poor.

“We are so trapped in a culture that induces us to look in the mirror and pamper ourselves,” wrote Pope Francis. “We think that an altruistic gesture (towards the poor) is enough, without the need to get directly involved.”

He is right, of course. Too often our gifts are meant more to satisfy the giver than those who receive. All too frequently, individuals and governments make grand gestures to aid the poor but are unwilling to actually stand with them, to stop, listen and reach out to them, to genuinely try to feel their pain. The poor, the Pope says, need “the personal involvement of all who hear their cry.” 

A generous person drops a loonie into the paper cup of a beggar they pass on the street, but the Pope challenges us to be something more — the type of person who readily drops a loonie but also extends a hand in an authentic manner that gives hope, purpose and dignity to a destitute person.

Pope Francis has no illusions. This is not easy. We live in a world that can momentarily rise in compassion but is generally indifferent to suffering it cannot see. Or refuses to look at. 

He acknowledges that the World Day of the Poor “may well be like a drop of water in the desert of poverty.” But even the mightiest flood begins with a single drop. 

“For the poor to overcome their oppressive situation, they need to sense the presence of brothers and sisters who are concerned for them and . . . make them feel like friends and family.” Instead, he wrote, often the opposite is true. The poor are shunned, told to be quiet, left to accept their lot in life, rejected and kept afar.

How different the world might be if, instead of selfishly chasing wealth and possessions while occasionally helping needy causes, people the world over committed to a sincere effort to draw so near to the poor that their cries for help might someday become mere whispers.

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