Solidarity in Hard Times
Poverty must be tackled relationally
In his World Day of the Poor Letter 2022, Pope Francis reminds us that for Christians, poverty is to be tackled primarily through relationships and personal acts of love. He emphasises the importance of a reciprocity that includes people who are poor. He stresses that the more affluent do not delegate this responsibility through a ‘welfare mentality’ or ‘activism’. He urges people of goodwill to work for a politics that gives poor people a say in the decisions that impact their lives, thereby confronting the social and economic causes of poverty. This story is shared from a resource by our friends at Caritas Social Action Network.
From the very early days of the Church, attention to the needs of the poor was a core feature of the Christian community. St Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, is asking for help for the community in Jerusalem, who are suffering great hardship due to a food shortage in the country.
He does not regard this request as a command but instead asks them to take up a collection as “a sign of love, the love shown by Jesus himself”[i]. As Pope Francis reminds us, “where the poor are concerned, it is not talk that matters; what matters is rolling up our sleeves and putting faith into practice through a direct involvement, one that cannot be delegated”. [ii]
It is important that no one lacks what is necessary and that our concern is born out of sincere and generous concern – a concern which sees people who are poor as our brothers and sisters. It is not so much that we are helping them, but that they experience “a hand to help me shake off the lethargy into which I have fallen”.[iii] The Christian approach to the poor is not a kind of “welfare mentality” or “activism.”[iv]
Rather than being the objects of our almsgiving, people who are poor “can help set us free from the snares of anxiety and superficiality”. That is why Francis insists that our work is never for the poor, but with the poor and of the poor, work that brings people together.[v]
This year’s World Day of the Poor letter[vi] reminds us that we are called to engage in acts of encounter and concrete expressions of love and charity. The focus is not fundraising, but encounter, accompaniment and change: do we know our community, who do we ‘see’ there, who do we not see? What is the Holy Spirit prompting us to do?
What is poverty?
Poverty is an experience – of a person, a group or a whole country – of lacking one or more conditions necessary for an adequate standard of living. In our own country, where education is almost universal, an inadequate standard is often understood as struggling to cover the day-to-day basic costs of living.
The most extreme form is destitution: when you have no foreseeable opportunity to access, for example, enough food to survive or basic health care, no accommodation, or are forced into degrading activities.
Poverty may be a misery affecting the whole person, sometimes hidden in the experience of prolonged isolation, or subjection to wrongful discrimination.
Systemic poverty arises where social or economic structures leave some citizens cut off from what should be available to everyone. For example, the more oppressive the state, the tighter the control of day-to-day movement and free expression, with denial of education, work, property and welfare rights.
Similarly, the less direct say that workers have in shaping and owning the business or market they are in, the more likely it is that exploitation can take root.
What does the Church say about our relationship with material goods?
God delights in every person: each is created good, with a deepest desire to live life to the full. When we pause to think what makes us most joyful, we recognise a connection with using our talents and possessions as gifts – freely received and freely given. My own good is realised best in adequate self-care and in being with – delighting in – other people. Material goods and wealth are neither good nor bad in themselves.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST)[vii] upholds the right to seek profit from work and to acquire private property, while recognising the ‘universal destination of goods’. In other words, personal wealth is first to meet our own needs and those of family for adequate living; any extra should be considered available to our neighbours’ and community’s needs. This means we have to listen and seek to understand what is going on around us:
Who is cut off or prevented from enjoying an adequate standard of living? How might my use of talents and material goods contribute in this state of affairs? Would a simpler way of living create more freedom to live well?
The choice to live more simply is sometimes known as evangelical poverty. It is a conscious choice to be transformed – as my circumstances allow, and without intentionally becoming a burden on others – in seeking that everyone has what is adequate, starting in my home and looking ever wider in society.
Why do Christians choose a ‘preferential love’ for the poor?
For the Christian, neighbour love is more than a reasoned calculation about adequacy and ‘need’. St Paul explains (Gal. 3:28) that in Christ – that is, in choosing the way of love in its fullness – there is neither young nor old, slave nor free. All share a common call to life in one human family and a finite resource, a span of days on earth.
In practice, I only have today to choose from my giftedness – either what builds up our life together, or, a sense of enclosure within an idea of my identity that may build me only a bitter sense of injustice towards myself. Faith, hope, and above all love, Paul says, urge us (2 Cor. 5:14) to go beyond a minimum, legal obligation to our neighbour. Christ exemplifies this in his way of challenging poverty – in deep humility and reverence, to be with people who are most excluded from life by the oppression, laws and customs of his time – whether they are poor, rich, or turned too far in on themselves. This is known as the ‘preferential option’ for the poor. It is the way of Christ, a vital way of seeing and coming to know Him, a path of true freedom and lasting joy: on this path we will never be alone.
Pope Francis argues that we cannot tolerate a way of living in which so many are excluded from the “fruits of creation”. He argues that “We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded, and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives. We need to slow down, take stock, and design better ways of living together on this earth. Now is the moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek…God asks us to create something new.”[viii]
That call is all the more urgent now as we face an economic crisis which will see many people dragged into poverty and government policies which do not always have the needs of the most vulnerable as their priority.
The method Francis suggests for discerning our priorities, which has a long history in the Church, is to “see clearly, choose well, and to act right.” This approach is called the See-Judge-Act method, sometimes known as the pastoral cycle, or review of life. It is an invitation – for a group, in a parish, or a school – to pay particular attention to their local community. It invites us to discern who in the community is living in circumstances of poverty, and then to decide what might be done to tackle that poverty, promote justice and restore dignity.
Pope Francis teaches that “at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.”[ix] The ‘social mission’ of the Church is not something that should be seen as reserved for a few ‘activists’. Francis says that “each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.”[x] He stresses that this is the work of the Christian community. He takes his inspiration from the feeding of the five thousand in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus says to the disciples who were panicking about what to do with the hungry crowd: “You yourselves give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
This “liberation and promotion” of the poor is not only an act of charity to relieve suffering. We are also asked to understand why there is poverty in the first place and work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.”[xi] This is what Pope Francis means by “solidarity”, along with the preferential option for the poor. Both are principles in Catholic Social Teaching; both are key concepts in building a better world. Solidarity, for Pope Francis, “presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.”[xii]
To look at how we might contribute to the building of a better world in our own neighbourhood, we can ask:
How well do we know our community?
What might we do to get to know the reality of our community better?
© Caritas Social Action Network
This is an edited extract from a World Day of the Poor 2022 resource for churches and schools by Caritas Social Action Network, shared with their kind permission. It offers a framework for the week leading up to World Day of the Poor (13 November 2022) and contains reflections, prayers and suggested questions for group discussion.
Download the full resource here
This article was featured in the Pentecost 2022 edition of the T4CG Newsletter.