I'm not sure this is a good summertime question, but continually impressed and influenced by the various talks and actions by Pope Francis, I invite for your consideration what is often a difficult reflection question for most of us: How much can I, or should I, do to help the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged?
If you are old enough, you may remember a politician dismissing any additional governmental programs for the poor by correctly quoting Jesus' words, and completely twisting the meaning, by saying, "The poor you will always have with you."
Not only is that statement true, but, if anything, modern media also allows us to be aware of poverty in places and with a level of sophistication undreamed of just a few decades ago. Every now and again the media will focus on a particular locale or situation and that light shining for that moment brings with it some actions from the world to care for those who are struggling, starving, dying. But this information technology can also work against caring for these same brothers and sisters because the scope of the problem is so vast we feel powerless to do anything that will make a difference.
I would like to suggest we reflect on responses to two very different dimensions of the problem: personal and societal. On the personal level, I think it is necessary to consider what I can do to help my sisters and brothers. But I also suspect the starting point for that has to come from a place of faith and connectedness to Our Lord. Otherwise it is simply one more budgeting item in our busy lives. What I mean by this is that our foundation in life has to be Jesus and what he asked us to do and what he himself did. Primary must be the recognition that all people are our sisters and brothers. In families, sharing is the norm, not the exception. In this case, we are talking about a much larger family, but the norm still holds. The sharing we can do with those in need is not simply a nice idea, nor even just an important part in making us better human beings. It is also a commandment of Jesus. We are to love one another. Saying the words or professing that ideal without putting our very lives into the reality means we really don't believe it. So we have to act.
I think the action must have two dimensions - we have to share what we have with those who have less or have not, AND we have to connect with them in human, interpersonal ways. We must actually know in some human way the poor. Only when they stop being a category and become individuals with names and personal histories have we met this requirement.
On the societal level, we need to become aware of and participate in the creation of structures that help remedy the crises of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and inadequate health care. For example, the financial crash of 2008 didn't happen by itself. It happened due to a series of laws and policies that allowed some huge sectors of the economy to realize extraordinary profits while bankrupting millions of individuals and families. The fallout of that crisis was devastating to the individuals and families, and barely a bump in the road to those institutions. Something is very wrong with an economic system that allows and encourages this disregard for individuals and families. And that is just one example. How food is grown and who can afford it is another. How debt is amassed and leveraged and who pays for it is another. These are complex systems and structures with no easy solutions. Which is not the same as saying they cannot be changed to better care for the majority of the world's population. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if we are going to better care for the poor, the rich are going to have to do with less.
For societal problems we will need societal answers. We will need the awakening of a consciousness that these systems cannot benefit only the wealthy or a particular part of the world. They need to work for everyone, everywhere. The beginning of that awareness is when each of us realizes and takes responsibility for our own part of the society to which we belong. In the way we live and spend, in the way we vote or do not vote, in the way hold leadership responsible, we make a difference. Doing nothing is not a passive activity. It contributes to the status quo. Which means everything must be fine, why would we want to change anything? That can never be an acceptable stance for a follow of Jesus.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable being citizens not only of the wealthiest country in the world, but probably the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Feeling guilty might be a balm for our conscience, but it does nothing to feed the poor, care for the sick and elderly, etc. The Beatitudes aren't meant to be a heavenly vision but an earthly reality. What can I do to make that so?
I would love it if parishioners would join in this reflection. I know from stories I have heard from you of some great ideas for dealing with these issues. I have enjoyed stories of families who only get to play with a new toy when a current, functioning toy is handed over to be donated to someone in need. And the cleaning of closets and shoe racks to help "clothe the naked" is always greeted with such generosity by so many. I suspect there are many practices for charitable giving that are well worth sharing. Creating and strengthening a climate of stewardship and caring is something in which we can all participate. Please join in this reflection.