Saturday, August 27, 2016

Finding Christ in the Poor


One of the first things Pope Francis did three years ago following his election was meet with the media and, of course, they immediately asked him why he had chosen the name Francis. He answered, “Some people wanted to know why I wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend [and a Franciscan, I might add]! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and leaned in and said: ‘Don't forget the poor!’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then, I thought of all the wars in the world, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis

is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and is for the poor!”

I couldn’t help but think of this story from the very beginning of this papacy, not just because I am a Franciscan, but because I think it speaks to what Jesus is telling us today in the Gospel. Jesus tells us today, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

We know that the poor were the most beloved of Jesus. The Beatitudes are themselves a hymn of praise for the poor. Just look who are listed among the blessed. Blessed are you: who are poor, who are hungry, who are meek, who are persecuted – it is to them that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Jesus loved the poor and spent most of His time among them. They held a special place in His heart. And Pope Francis is reminding us that love for the poor is meant to be at the heart of our call too. He is reminding us that we are most perfectly and beautifully and clearly Church when we are in direct contact with these most beloved of Jesus – with the poor.

Our Christian message is so pure when we serve the poor, isn’t it? Just think of all the times that we have to explain Catholic doctrine and dogma – whether it’s the theology of the Eucharist or Confession or our teachings on marriage – these are complex and deep and abiding mysteries that are not easily understood. But, when we feed the hungry in a soup kitchen, does that require explanation? When we house the homeless, does anyone miss the faith connection? When we give warm coats and blankets to the needy in the cold winter, do we need to write a doctrinal thesis? No, our faith and its witness is pure and powerful when we love the poor and when we show that love for the poor in what we do. This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks of wanting “a church that is poor and for the poor.” A Church that is poor and is for the poor is pure in its intent, its mission and its witness.

But, we live in a world that wants to say that the poverty around us is always someone else’s problem. President Ronald Reagan in 1986 declared the War on Poverty over. “And poverty won,” he infamously said. That is unacceptable to us who follow Jesus, the great lover of the poor.

My friends, we are called to let our faith inspire in us the same kind of love for those who are in need in our world. To develop a mercy in our hearts so that when we see someone who is homeless, someone who is hungry, someone who is in need, we don’t fall into the trap of our culture to blame the poor for their poverty, but instead to look on them as precious in the sight of God; beloved in the eyes of Jesus; and so beloved in our eyes as well. The poor are our prime constituency, they are our focus and they need to be our preferential option. And more importantly, they need to be our brothers and sisters who we seek out with joy and mercy to help in their need. When we love the poor, we do more than simply make their difficult their lives better, it is more than mere philanthropy. When we love the poor, we are loving God; when we reach out to the poor, we are encountering God; when we find the poor in our midst, we discover God in our midst. “What you did for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did for Me.”

Two years ago, for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Pope reflected on the moment when Jesus invited Thomas to touch His wounds. He said, “The path to our encounter with Jesus are his wounds. There is no other. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed."

Let us allow our discovery of God here at Mass – in Word and Sacrament – be the inspiration that leads us to discover Him once again outside of this church, in all the people we meet, but especially in the poor and those in need. Truly then, we are living as daughters and sons of God. Truly, if we love to poor and reach them in their need, this will change everything for us too.

May the Lord give you peace.