Thursday, September 15, 2011

Indifference to the Poor

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, gave an address to the Caritas general assembly in May on the Gospel's Social Relevance. You can read the full text here, but I wanted to highlight one part of his address:
Perhaps the greatest sin committed against the poor is indifference, pretending not to see, “passing by on the other side”. (cf. Lk 10, 31). What Jesus objected to in the rich man who feasted sumptuously, was not so much the unbridled luxury of his lifestyle, as his indifference to the poor man lying at his gate.

We tend to set up a kind of double glazing between ourselves and the poor. The effect of double glazing, so much in use today, is to keep out cold and noise. It dilutes everything, deadens and muffles every sound. So it is with the poor: we see them on our TV screens or in the pages of newspapers or missionary magazines, but their cries are a distant echo that never reaches our hearts. We protect ourselves from them. In rich countries, the very words “the poor” provoke the same agitation and panic as the cry “Barbarians!” aroused in the inhabitants of ancient Rome. They built walls and sent armies to watch their borders. We do the same thing, in different ways, but history tells us it is all to no avail.

So the first thing to do in relation to the poor is to break through the double glazing, to overcome our indifference and insensitivity. We need to let our defences down and be overwhelmed by a healthy anxiety in face of the fearful misery there is in the world. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelica testificatio, ”The persistence of poverty-stricken masses and individuals is a pressing call for conversion of minds and attitudes”. The cry of the poor obliges us “to awaken consciences to the drama of misery and to the demands of social justice made by the Gospel and the Church”[5].

In the incarnation of the Word, the “problem of the poor” has taken on a new dimension in history; it has become a Christological question too. Jesus of Nazareth identified himself with them. He who pronounced the words: “This is my body” over the bread, has spoken the same words with reference to the poor. He spoke them when, talking about what people had done or failed to do for the hungry, the thirsty, prisoners, the naked or the stranger, he solemnly declared “You did it to me” and “you failed to do it to me” (cf Mt 25, 31 ff). This is the same as saying: “You remember that ragged person who needed a piece of bread, that poor person holding out his hand – it was me, it was me!”

I remember the first time the full force of this truth “exploded” within me. I was preaching in a third-world country, and with each new scene of misery I saw - a child in a tattered dress, her face covered in flies; groups of people running after a refuse cart, hoping to pick up something dumped on the garbage heap; a body covered in sores – I heard a voice booming inside me: “This is my body. This is my body”. It took my breath away.

The poor person is Jesus, still wandering the world unrecognised. It’s a little like when, after the resurrection, He appeared in other guises – to Mary as a gardener, as a pilgrim to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, to the apostles on the lake as someone walking on the shore –, waiting for “their eyes to be opened”. On one occasion, the first person to recognise Him called out to the others: “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21, 7). Oh, if only we too, on seeing a poor person, would exclaim even once, with the same cry of recognition: “It is the Lord”, it is Jesus!

It is so important to not only see Jesus in the poor, but to see the poor as Jesus. We need to break down our double glazing, share the pain and burden of the poor, and ease that burden through acts of charity that go beyond simply giving them money or things. This is at the heart of living the Gospel, has been a constant message of Catholic Social Teaching, and is what we are all called to do as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

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