By Jean Rolex, CM
Several years ago, Pope Francis inaugurated a day dedicated exclusively to the poor. In inaugurating this day, he wanted to emphasise a little more one of the Church’s long-standing concerns, the service of the poor, God’s favourites. In his message for the first World Day of the Poor, he clearly explained his intention: “to stimulate believers to react to the culture of waste and discarding by making their own the culture of encounter. At the same time, it invites everyone, regardless of their religious denomination, to be ready to share with the poor through any action of solidarity, as a concrete sign of fraternity”. In the face of so many painful stories of poverty and uncertainty, Pope Francis believes that it is time to listen as Church and as men and women of good will to the voice of the poor and the marginalised. Helping the poor in this regard is “an imperative that no Christian can ignore.”
Service to the poor must manifest itself in a fraternity and solidarity that corresponds to the main teaching of the Master, who proclaimed the poor as blessed and heirs of the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 5:3). Now, as spiritual children of St Vincent, what do we commit ourselves to on the World Day of the Poor to be celebrated on 13 November? What simple, concrete, effective and efficient responses do we want to give to heal the wounds of soul and body, to restore justice and to help people to resume life with dignity?
We cannot deny that on some occasions, unfortunately, Christians have not always given concrete answers to the inhuman situation of the poor within human limits. But, nevertheless, there have been men and women inspired by the Holy Spirit, who in many ways have given their lives in the service of the poor. Among them we highlight the example of St. Vincent de Paul, who has been followed by many men and women. St. Vincent was not content to embrace and give food to the poor, but decided to give his life to their service. He gave himself to their service, he placed himself in their midst. In the poor, he discovered Jesus Christ, poor and humiliated. In these poor, despicable in the eyes of the world, he saw God’s representatives (cf. XI, 725). To serve the poor for St Vincent de Paul is to serve Jesus Christ himself. To be in their midst is to encounter God (cf. IX, 240). St Vincent’s witness confirms the transforming power of charity. In the course of his life, St. Vincent took perfectly to heart the words of the holy Bishop Chrysostom: “If you want to honour the body of Christ, do not despise it when it is naked; do not honour the Eucharistic Christ with silken vestments, while outside the temple you neglect that other Christ who suffers from cold and nakedness”. Serving the poor became a way of life for him. A life that produced joy and spiritual serenity, because he touched the flesh of Christ with his hands.
Following the example of St. Vincent who saw the misery of his time and saw the poor in their situation (cf. IX, 749) and gave concrete responses born of his personal conversion, we as Vincentians, on this World Day of the Poor, are called to see the poor, to reach out our hands to them, to meet them, to look them in the eye, to embrace them, to make them feel the warmth of love that breaks the circle of loneliness. Our Vincentian response must be a “coming out of our certainties and comforts, and recognising the value of poverty in itself”. Indeed, such a response must involve “loosening unjust chains, undoing the thongs of the yoke, freeing the oppressed, breaking every yoke, breaking your bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless poor, covering him whom you see naked” (Is 58:6-7). On this day of the poor, Vincentians, let us make concrete the words of the psalm: “the poor shall eat their fill” (Ps 22,27). We must not do big things, but small things, but in a big way. Some will say, a small gesture will not change the lot of the poor. Certainly, a small gesture will not change or end the lot of the poor, but it will change the life of a poor person.
The Vincentian response must be an evangelical response that alleviates so many forms of poverty that are before our eyes. It must also be a response born of our intimate relationship with Christ and with the Vincentian charism. Indeed, for this day, our activities must be motivated by faith and human solidarity. It is a day to feel “indebted to the poor”. To give back to the poor “the hope lost because of injustice, suffering and the precariousness of life”. On this response will depend the credibility of our Vincentian being and doing. In reality, the poor “need our hands to rejoin them, our hearts to feel again the warmth of affection, our presence to overcome loneliness.
They simply need love”. Like St Vincent, poverty for a Vincentian must first and foremost be a vocation to follow the poor Jesus. It is a walk behind him and with him, a walk that leads to the happiness of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 5,3; Lk 6,20). We definitely follow the example of St Vincent, faithful witness of poverty. By offering our effective contribution to change history, by generating real development, by listening to the cry of the poor and by committing ourselves to lifting them out of their marginalised situation.
How do we identify poverty? Pope Francis himself tells us that “poverty has faces marked by pain, marginalisation, oppression, violence, torture and imprisonment, war, deprivation of freedom and dignity, ignorance and illiteracy, health emergencies and lack of work, human trafficking and slavery, exile and misery, and forced migration. Poverty has the face of women, men and children exploited by vile interests, trampled underfoot by the perverse logic of power and money” Faced with this scenario, an authentic Vincentian cannot remain indolent, nor can he or she surrender. The World Day of the Poor is a new occasion for the members of the Vincentian branches to give concrete answers with a new vision of life and society.
Vincentians, let us make this day grow a little, turning it into a day of prayer, of joy and of sharing with the poor closest to us. May this 13th November be a day to “stretch out your hand to the poor” (cf. Si 7,32).